Salt Lake’s new transit pass is brilliant and equitable

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The transit pass will cover TRAX.

Earlier this year, Salt Lake City announced the beginning of a program offering transit passes to residents for $30 a month. The plan was widely hailed, but just yesterday I learned that, contrary to initial rumors, the pass would also cover Frontrunner commuter rail.

That means that for $30, residents of Salt Lake City can get anywhere (worth going to) along the Wasatch Front.

One of the reasons cited for doing this is air quality. But here are some other reasons that it’s brilliant:

1. It gives Salt Lake City an edge over local and regional competitors. As a working professional living in Salt Lake, I’m suddenly much less likely to move away — to other Utah cities or even somewhere like Denver or Boise — because doing so would mean spending more money on travel. And if I didn’t live in Salt Lake, I’d seriously consider moving here so I could get the cheap pass. In other words, this pass is going to help Salt Lake attract and retain a talented, “creative class” labor pool.

Buses will be covered by the new $30 transit pass.

Buses will be covered by the new $30 transit pass.

2. But this plan isn’t just for white collar workers; in fact as government subsidies go this one is pretty equitable. Residents qualify whether they live in a rich neighborhood or a poor neighborhood. And since transit also plays a vital role for many lower income Utahns, this plan could save money for the people who need it most. In a time when income inequality and wealth distribution have become hot-button political issues, the comparative equitably of this subsidy seems like one of its most laudable aspects.

Over the time I’ve been writing about cities I’ve become increasingly skeptical about government subsidies, mainly because they so often benefit wealthy developers and middle class suburbanites — or, people who shouldn’t really need government handouts. And also because they frequently encourage horrible development, like sprawl. Freeway building, many of our mortgage laws, even traffic lights, etc. are examples of this.

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Frontrunner commuter rail also will be covered by the pass.

But this transit program is precisely the opposite; it’s uniformly available to everyone in the city and will tend to favor those living in more economically and environmentally sustainable, transit-oriented areas. It’s also a smaller, more local program, which means it should be more agile. And it’s not really a very big investment; even if Salt Lake City offered free transit to everyone, that would still cost less than we spend building and maintain our massive car infrastructure. Vastly less, in fact.

As the city website notes, this is a one-of-a-kind program, so it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. But on the eve of a massive change, it seems likely to give Salt Lake a competitive economic edge and to mark a shift toward a more responsible society.

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2 comments

  1. Alan Peters

    Any city that can provide practically free transit has a major edge, especially since that practically free transit can take you almost anywhere. Right now I’m spending probably $500/mo for the convenience of having a car, but if I could rely on that $1/day transit I could move to Salt Lake and save $6000 a year which I could spend on higher rent, more eating out at better restaurants, more arts, a better bike, and the occasional cab ride or car rental. It makes me seriously consider a lifestyle change. If my wife and I both got passes at the full price today, we’d save a few bucks, but it’s not really enough for me to be imaginative. $1/day transit is definitely a game changer.

  2. Emily S.

    I hadn’t thought about the possibility of it attracting residents. I’d love for the pass to get attention beyond SLC and do that. (How?) I couldn’t be more proud of the city’s decision to do this!

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