BY JULIE ESPINOSA
Free parking. At face value, those two words sound pretty good to cash-strapped students. But two weeks into a new semester, many are left wondering how free ?free parking? actually is after BYU started comping on-campus parking passes this year.
The move comes as a surprise to some, but university officials say there is a rationale behind their free handout approach.
However, it wasn?t packed or emptied parking lots that caused administrators to change policy, but their desire to get more students to comply with parking rules. Whereas the cost of BYU?s contract with UTA used to be covered by parking pass income, it is now paid for by the riders.
Students who used to ride for free now pay a reduced price of $60 for a year-long UTA bus pass. That?s discounted from UTA?s normal $396 annual cost.
?Even when people weren?t using it daily, they had it, and it was a choice and unfortunately less people have access to that choice now,? said Justin Jones, spokesman for UTA. ?They?re just going to drive more consistently.?
At the beginning of the semester, UTA representatives spoke with students, many of whom expressed that $60 was too much for them.
?The initial sticker shock for some of them was hard and they said, ?I couldn?t afford that,?? said UTA representative Stacey Gaultney. ?We just really want to try to let students know it costs, but it?s still really a great bargain.?
Jones said the cost is only $5 each month, which is less than the cost of two gallons of gas.
As of Monday, 4,517 students had bought UTA passes, compared with over 20,000 that were distributed for free last year.
Also, 1,731 G-lot permits and 7,875 Y-lot permits have been distributed for free so far. Last year, students purchased 1,360 G-lot permits and 6,970 Y-lot permits. There are 879 G-lot and 7,012 Y-lot parking stalls on campus.
A Texas Christian University police department survey of 15 private colleges and universities found ?the estimated median cost of a student parking permit [to be] approximately $148.?
Lt. Greg Barber of the University Police said that by making parking permits free, the university hoped there would be fewer parking violations and that those violations that did occur would be traceable with a more complete BYU registry.
Before, unpaid tickets from BYU initiated a long process of trying to track down the owner of the vehicle, searching through every state?s database, to find someone to pay the ticket. After identifying the driver of the vehicle, tickets left unpaid were sent to a collection agency.
?It would just end up ruining your credit,? Barber said.
The administration decided it was worth losing the income from parking permits to fix the problem of hard-to-trace violators. The process of registering vehicles has been made easier since Utah eliminated a law requiring universities to verify vehicles that parked there had passed emissions standards.
?We?re trying to make people honorable,? said Jan Scharman, vice president of student life.
Scharman said the UTA pass program did not decrease the number of people who were driving to campus, which was the original purpose of the program.
In 2004, the administration conducted surveys and solicited personal feedback on the transportation habits of students and staff. The survey showed nearly one third of all bus rides occurred between campus and a few surrounding blocks. About 30 percent of students indicated they had used UTA?s services in Salt Lake City.
Forty-three pass holders indicated they rode UTA more than 20 times per month, forty-one percent 1-20 per month, and fifteen indicated they never used public transportation. A full 92 percent of students indicated they felt having a car was necessary for their personal transportation.
Scharman said the administration still felt public transportation was important because they chose to renew their contract with UTA.
?Our preference is that when you can, ride public transportation,? Scharman said. ?We?d like to encourage and make that as convenient as possible. We?d like to have them bike, walk, carpool — but when people do need a car for volunteering or work, we want them to park legally.?
Scharman, who lives in Salt Lake City, said she does not ride UTA to BYU because it takes too long to commute. She said BYU students should remember they never pay full price for any services they receive, whether the cost of tuition, parking or bus use.
?I think we have an entitled group of students, to be honest,? Scharman said. ?There?s hardly a university around that has better parking.?
The BYU study of transportation habits found that the number one complaint of students was the timeliness of service. The number one complaint of faculty and staff was that routes did not come often enough or go to enough places.
UTA?s Jones explained that each county decides what kind of transportation they want to plan for through UTA. Only about 30 percent of UTA?s operating costs come directly from riders. Utah County has not chosen to expand transportation infrastructure as much as, say, Salt Lake or Weber counties, Jones said.
?Eventually when we get more funding we will increase the routes and frequency,? he said. ?When Utah County makes the decision of what kind of service they want to pay for, we?re here to provide that service.?
Jones said a redesign five years ago that increased frequencies of main routes in the county increased ridership by 85 percent. Gaultney said UTA plans to improve the frequency and number of routes in the future, provided they get the funding.
?Our biggest challenge is expanding our resources,? Gaultney said. ?We use what we can with what we have.?
One of the problems UTA has in trying to offer more is that certain government officials have not believed there was sufficient need for it, said Richard Jackson, a professor of geography who was on UTA?s board for five years.
?The mindset that some people had was ?people won?t ride it. People won?t like it? — because they [the officials] never had,? Jackson said. ?People do like it. Ridership is much more than we predicted.?
Even though the majority of the Rocky Mountain area?s population lives in urban areas, the distance between urban clusters contributes to people?s need to drive, Jackson said. People?s transportation habits in the region are not drastically different from the rest of the United States.
?Across most of the Intermountain West, we have never historically had a well-developed mass transit system because we?d never had the population density,? Jackson said. ?And people value their cars. There?s still a predilection to drive. Not here more than anywhere else. That?s an American thing.?