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New UTA free students passes get public scrutiny

December 20, 2017 GMT

With more than 37,000 students and growth patterns showing more like 46,000 by 2025, parking at Utah Valley University is becoming as much a focus as academics.

“We want our students to focus on their academic careers and not on transportation and parking,” said Matthew Holland, Utah Valley University president.

A solution was announced Dec. 14 at a joint press conference with Brigham Young University, UVU and Utah Transit Authority, where the three entities announced free premium passes will be given to students, faculty, staff and their dependents for 10 years.

The significance of that offering can be seen in the way both schools are financing the contract with UTA.

“The announcement came as a culmination of several years of relationship building with UTA, whose leaders brought a vision of expanding services to help students in Utah,” said Jan Scharman, BYU’s student life vice president in a press statement. “This has been an important collaboration among UTA, UVU and BYU to benefit not just students and employees, but all of Utah County.”

The premium pass program provide pass-holders free ridership on any UTA service, from FrontRunner trains to buses and everything in between. Premium passes are typically $198 per month per person.

Immediately following the press conference, the more skeptical and quizzical observers expressed concern on social media, wondering if tithing donations from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were being double-dipped with taxpayer money for the passes at BYU. And were taxpayer dollars going to passes at UVU to help non-resident students?

According to Cari Jenkins, director of media relations at BYU, the private school does not make their resource planning process public.

“Through its annual resource planning process, BYU was able to allocate the funds necessary to participate in this program,” she said.

These were funds already in the system and could be redirected to the premium pass program. BYU has agreed to pay UTA $1 million a year for 10 years or $10 million total for the pass program.

Since 2002, UVU’s transit program with UTA was created to be a sustainable transportation alternative to driving.

“For 15 years, UVU’s pass program with UTA has worked to reduce traffic, free up parking, promote clean air, and make it easier for students to attend school,” according to a press release.

The university’s contract renewal with UTA will continue to be funded by a combination of student fees, employee benefits funding and parking pass revenue. The existing non-taxpayer student fee of $6.88 for the UTA campus bus shuttle will not change.

It is anticipated that many UVU faculty and staff will take advantage of this new benefit, resulting in $380,000 from the employee benefits account or existing taxpayer funds. The remaining balance will come from non-taxpayer funded parking fees.

The university will increase the cost of the annual parking pass from $90 to $115 to cover the remaining $270,000.

“UVU basically has two transportation options with its expanding student body,” said Val Peterson, UVU’s vice president of finance and administration. “One is to build more parking structures and parking lots, an extremely expensive option, and encouraging people to drive, resulting in increased traffic and poor air quality.”

Peterson continued, saying, “A more financially and environmentally sustainable approach is to encourage students, faculty and staff to use public transportation, which will reduce traffic, keep the air cleaner, and will allow our limited resources to remain focused on our academic mission. We believe this is a good investment for UVU’s future.”

“UTA’s contract with UVU, anticipated to be signed in the coming months, will make approximately 50,000 passes available to UVU for $1 million annually,” a UVU statement said.

The main purpose of the program is to give students, employees and their families’ transportation choices in areas where parking is limited and commute times can be frustrating, according to a UVU press release. The program was also designed to reduce traffic congestion, help clean the air, and protect the quality of life and economic viability in Utah County, the release continued.

“The idea is to get people off the roads where transit makes sense,” said Mary DeLaMare-Schaefer, regional general manager for UTA. “University students are more likely to ride transit.”

According to DeLaMare-Schaefer, approximately 37 percent of University of Utah students use public transit. She said this new incentive will help Utah Valley build to those standards set by Salt Lake County students.

“We will build to those numbers with BYU and UVU over the next decade,” she said.

“BRT is now competitive with that service and helpful for students,” DeLaMare-Schaefer said. She noted that BYU, Utah’s largest private university, and UVU, the largest public university in the state, are just a few miles from each other along the BRT route.