Stuck in reverse
The Utah Transit Authority took another step Monday in what threatens to become its own death spiral. Transit fares across the UTA's many services and rate plans took another jump, the third in two years, pushing the cost of taking a bus, light rail or commuter rail in these parts to among the highest in the nation.
If the system also provided service that was among the best in the nation, connecting all of the Wasatch Front's major neighborhoods with convenient service linking home, work and recreation, then the latest hike from $2.35 to $2.50 for a basic bus or TRAX ride would be easier to stomach.
The fact that UTA service does not rise to such a level is something that is not entirely within the control of the agency's managers. The economic crash took a huge bite out of UTA's sales tax subsidy, right at a time when its high-tech, and high-cost, TRAX and FrontRunner extensions were being rolled out.
But tight budgets and hungry trains left UTA, and many of its riders, in a situation where the old-fashioned bus service was being curtailed. That has left many working-class Utahns, who are not the target market for the sleek and WiFi-friendly FrontRunner, facing much longer commutes, with more transfers, less convenient hours and now higher fares.
The result is likely to be some significant drainage in customers, as more folks fire up their gas-guzzling autos as their preferred, or only practical, way of getting to work. That not only leads to even less money in the fare box, it also runs counter to a main reason why UTA is worth so much in tax subsidies reductions in congestion and air pollution.
Add to that the extremely poor public image cast by the UTA's stratospheric salaries, benefits and pensions for some of the agency's top administrators, along with a history of suspicious site-selection criteria for its rail stops, and you wind up with a public agency that doesn't have nearly enough public support to do its job right.
Further complicating the matter is a bill that came out of the recent session of the Utah Legislature. SB275 would allow utilities such as Questar to charge its ratepayers some of the cost of converting many vehicles, including UTA buses, to run on natural gas. A worthy goal, probably, but a stealthy funding mechanism that also stands to lower UTA's image in the public's eye.
UTA needs to do a lot of fence-mending with its customers, potential customers and ex-customers, not only to get, or keep, them riding, but also to build the overall support that will be necessary for better sources of subsidies, such as a Utah carbon tax.