Mayors tell UTA to focus on quick, simple commuter solutions
West Valley City •Â A parade of invited mayors told the Utah Transit Authority board Tuesday what they want in future transit: quicker commutes, the ability to go more places, reasonable but low fares, and stations designed to attract high-density development to help take cars off the road as the population grows.
But mayors also warned UTA that it may be focusing too much on grand long-term projects while overlooking fairly easy solutions needed now Â such as more old-fashioned buses.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell said UTA is planning an expensive streetcar line to Weber State University, but it may be overlooking a more inexpensive solution for most college commuters: adding nonstop buses between Ogden's FrontRunner station and the school.
That came in the first of several "listening sessions" the UTA board plans to hold with governments, businesses and customers to plan what should come next after completion later this year of $2.4 billion in planned "Frontlines 2015" projects that have expanded TRAX and FrontRunner train lines along the Wasatch Front.
Arteries • Eagle Mountain Mayor Heather Jackson said those new rail lines have created a solid skeleton for transit regionally, "but now we need to work on the arteries" to better connect neighborhoods to it.
As an example, Jackson praised how the new Provo-to-Salt Lake City FrontRunner train allows her residents to commute north or south, while old express buses from Eagle Mountain ran only to Salt Lake City. But she said UTA created unnecessary problems as FrontRunner opened, increasing commutes for some of her residents by up to two hours a day.
Among them, she said, was a decision not to run buses to FrontRunner very often based on the belief that those that did run would be fuller and more efficient "but buses aren't full because they don't run often."
Salt Lake City Councilman Carlton Christensen said UTA should remember that "If the solution does not make it easier, simpler and cheaper, the public won't support it."
Christensen noted a problem with current fares. He said residents who live by the just-opened airport TRAX line along North Temple must pay $5 round trip to nearby downtown Salt Lake CityÂ but they could travel across the county for the same price. He said it discourages using transit for short hops, especially by families.
UTA has said it plans to convert soon to a fare system based on the length of trips (as it does on FrontRunner) instead of flat fees for trips of any length.
Its current base fares for TRAX and buses are among the highest in the nation. Advocates for the poor and environmental groups have urged lower fares, saying it would be worth the cost to increase ridership and reduce traffic congestion and pollution.
Population explosion • Mayors noted that regional planning agencies have already adopted plans and prioritized projects for expanding transit through 2040 Â when the area population is expected to double. Those plans include adding far more bus rapid transit (with buses having their own lanes) and more TRAX.
"We want it. We want it bad," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said about that expansion to make commuting quicker and more convenient.
UTA officials asked some leaders if support exists to perhaps raise taxes to speed expansion.
Christensen said that would have perhaps a 50-50 chance Â adding that UTA would need to clearly show the public specific benefits for residents to back any increase.
Sales taxes for UTA vary among the six counties that it serves, from 0.3 percent (a third of a penny per $1) in Tooele County to 0.6875 percent in Salt Lake County. Sales taxes provide about 71 percent of UTA's overall revenue.
Mayors also supported plans that envision making major transit stations the focus of "town centers" for surrounding higher-density development where people can live, work and play without the need to drive and easily commute where they need to go.
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder noted the meeting Tuesday was being held in the new Embassy Suites hotel at the end of the TRAX Green Line Â and the Fairbourne Station there may be a prototype of what they hope to see elsewhere. It has TRAX, bus rapid transit (with a dedicated lane on 3500 South) and regular bus service that has helped attract new investment in the Valley Fair Mall and surrounding apartments and condominiums.
"We have to talk about transit and transit-oriented development to all our communities," Winder said. "We need to embrace that as we go forward."