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McEntee: Hey, UTA, cut bosses' trips, not bus services

Published September 10, 2012 6:10 pm

Column • Are passengers taking a back seat to high-paid, globe-trotting execs?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

So exactly what, after all those trips around the world, did Utah Transit Authority big shots bring home to make public transportation better in Utah?

Some good ideas — maybe. But it's outrageous that UTA spent $610,840 during a year and a half for those excursions while raising fares and reducing bus services here at home. Those changes affect not only day-to-day commuters, but also the elderly, the poor, the working men and women who live on little money and fewer resources.

Although, you might be interested to know, that travel tab is a lot less than the $2.5 million a year spent on compensation for the 10 executives at the top of the UTA heap.

UTA prides itself on innovation, cost savings, high-speed transit, TRAX and the FrontRunner trains. But ridership remains ridiculously low, with only 2.9 percent of workers in the Salt Lake City metro area using public transit regularly.

Take my co-worker, who lives in Taylorsville. His monthly pass costs $78.50 and his average commute by bus and TRAX to our downtown Salt Lake City office takes 45 to 60 minutes — with only spotty service in the evenings.

If he drives, it's usually 20 minutes.

I drive, not only because UTA commuting can be slow, but also because I often have to go out for events and interviews. By freeway, it's about 15 minutes to work.

And I've written before about UTA's paratransit system, and the mother whose sweet son has Down syndrome and diabetes. The family relied on UTA, but when the agency pared back bus routes, her son was left with unreliable schedules getting him to and from his teachers and caregivers. Too often unable to find out where he was, she changed her work schedule to take and pick him up.

Try as it might, UTA also can't change a metropolitan area where freeways dominate. One bisects the Salt Lake Valley and indeed the state, another sweeps from the Great Salt Lake to Parleys Canyon and still another loops around the east and west sides.

For most of us who work and drive, those routes are the fastest and easiest way to get from here to there.

Now, let's talk about the people who can't afford to drive or have conditions that preclude that. They may be elderly or poor or both, the unemployed and newcomers who can't drive and need to get to work, or the doctor, or Workforce Services. And while seniors and minors get a fare break, it's still amounts to a lot of money for people with little of it.

UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter says the agency's executive board supports travel by executives as well as staffers such as engineers, for instance, who need to see other systems' innovations. He also says that money amounts to a quarter of 1 percent of UTA's net operating expenses last year, which topped out at $184 million. So far, this year's budget is $180 million.

Finally, Carpenter says, the Washington, D.C., junkets have, since 2006, reeled in more than $1 billion in competitive federal funding.

Hmmm. I'm wondering how that squares with the legislators and the governor, who are trying to move heaven and earth to unshackle Utah from heavy-handed federal intrusion, which helped build all those freeways.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.