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Fighting Salt Lake traffic jams may create fiscal ones

Published September 15, 2013 12:33 pm

"Transit Master Plan" • SLC may get stuck with bill for more bus and streetcar routes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As Salt Lake City works toward a "Transit Master Plan" intended to guide the capital into a new age, this much is painfully clear: City Hall doesn't control mass transit — the Utah Transit Authority does.

Every weekday, the population of Salt Lake City doubles as 180,000 people stream into town for work, shopping and entertainment. Transportation strategies, with an emphasis on mass transit, will be key to the city's future economy, air quality and lifestyle as the population grows, according to city officials.

If UTA can't provide the level of service the city requires, it may seek additional mechanisms to bolster transit routes, according to City Council members who took up the matter last week at their semiannual retreat.

Collectively, motorists in Salt Lake City now experience 9,000 hours of traffic congestion annually, according to the Wasatch Front Regional Council. By 2020, congestion on city streets is estimated to rise to 13,000 hours, under present transit systems. And, by 2040, that number is expected to be 29,000 hours.

In many Salt Lake City areas, mass transit options, most notably bus routes, are lacking. It isn't because UTA is inept or evil, according to City Council Chairman Kyle LaMalfa. Rather, the transit agency lacks funding for, say, neighborhood bus routes and a downtown circulator system because its responsibilities have increased elsewhere in northern Utah.

As the transit agency spent millions to expand commuter and light rail across the Wasatch Front in recent years, it also faced a downturn in sales tax revenues. Not only has UTA been unable to expand bus routes, LaMalfa said, but in some instances it actually has reduced them.

That has left the council pondering options to bolster service. The proposed Transit Master Plan, to be completed in mid-2015, should provide answers, said Robin Hutcheson, city transportation director.

Among other things, it will identify and prioritize important transit corridors that require new mass transit or upgrades to current service levels, she said. It also will seek to coordinate transit options and identify funding mechanisms.

The council embraced goals laid out by Councilman Soren Simonsen (see list on B1).

UTA officials already have said they are working toward a distance-based fare system, instead of flat fees for trips of any distance. UTA General Manager Michael Allegra also has said UTA has a long-term goal of having service that is so frequent that riders would not need printed schedules. But no definitive time frame has been identified.

Some of the council's goals, no doubt, are years away and fraught with challenges. And although UTA has said it will eventually expand bus service across the Wasatch Front, it appears likely, according to various council members, that Salt Lake City will have to augment UTA's services to meet city transit goals.

One option forwarded by Councilman Luke Garrott would be for the city to create its own transit agency to serve routes that aren't high on UTA's priority list.

"People want transportation choices," he said. "And right now they can't get to where they want to go on the bus."

Another option, said Councilman Charlie Luke, would be for the city to provide extra funding for UTA to upgrade bus service within the city. Such an arrangement would allow city officials to determine the location of bus and streetcar routes.

An example of such a partnership already is in the works. The Sugar House Streetcar, slated for a December start-up, is underwritten by Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake but will be operated by UTA.

According to a 2011 Dan Jones poll, some 61 percent of Salt Lake City residents said they would favor increased taxes for a "modern streetcar network."

Whatever emerges from the master plan, it's clear that City Hall is taking a more robust approach toward guiding mass transit strategies, LaMalfa said. "We want better transit."

csmart@sltrib.com

SLC Council transit goals

1 • Cost of mass transit should be based on distance; regular users should get discounts.

2 • Riders should be able to get anywhere in the city with only one transfer.

3 • Riders should have access to at least two transit lines within a five-minute walk.

4 • Hours of operation should suit employment areas, such as hospitals and retail centers.

5 • Riders should wait no longer than 10 minutes between buses or trains.