UTA redesign a tough sell to ridership
Widespread panic among mass transit riders has ensued since the February announcement that a bus route redesign in Salt Lake County would mean cutting the number of routes by more than half.
Lost in translation was the Utah Transit Authority's corollary assurance that drivers will still cover the same number of miles during the same number of operating hours. It led to hundreds of angry objections to the plan presented during a series of 10 open houses that ended April 3.
In response, UTA officials are attempting through an e-mail campaign to soothe the public while also asserting its actions will improve service, not cut it.
"UTA has implemented the most open and aggressive public input efforts for the redesign and the proposed fare increases in its history," the e-mail states.
Still, most of the more than 2,000 comments UTA has received on the redesign have been unfavorable.
"Part of [the negative reaction] admittedly has been because when asked a question, we responded with different numbers because the question has been different every time," UTA spokesman Justin Jones said Monday. "People were panicking, not realizing the night service [routes] would no longer be numbered separately from the day service."
Until last week, Jones said UTA's current 117 bus routes will be trimmed to 57 to eliminate redundancies and quit numbering night buses differently than their daytime counterparts.
Now, UTA is saying the proposed bus redesign "reflects a change from 98 to 80 routes." That's because only 98 of the system's routes operate in Salt Lake County, where the changes are taking place, Jones said.
On Monday, UTA revised the figures again.
"We have 20 routes that will not change because they are ski or express for a total of 78 remaining routes that are changing," Jones said in an e-mail to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Nine of the 78 are night service that will be numbered the same as the daytime route. So, 69 route numbers are being changed. The redesign proposes consolidating those 69 routes to 60, "which would operate at a greater frequency to make up for the nine route numbers that we will no longer use," he said.
Further complicating the transit picture is a fare increase proposal that would affect 25 individual ticket prices to ride buses and trains.
While UTA has received more than 2,000 comments about the redesign, the agency has received only about 100 mostly positive comments on the fare hike, Jones said.
The agency also just announced 48 "Change Day" route adjustments across its six-county service area that took effect Sunday.
Change Days occur thrice yearly - in April, August and November - to reflect the start and end of ski bus service and service to the universities. Timetables also are adjusted to more accurately accommodate road construction and increased congestion on certain routes, Jones said. The spring changes are detailed at http://www.rideuta.com/schedules
Bill Tibbitts of the Anti-Hunger Action Committee, a low-income advocacy group with a food pantry in downtown Salt Lake City, predicted major disorientation between now and the Aug. 26 redesign launch.
"It's an amazing number of changes," he said. "In this neighborhood, people live on streets where bus service is going to be canceled and they don't know it. The confusion really will begin when everybody who uses the bus is late to work on Aug. 26."
At a fare hearing Thursday at the City Library, Tibbitts and a few others wore "pointy paper noses" to the hearing to symbolize their distrust of UTA.
"There's definitely worry, there's definitely anger," he said. "You hear a lot of people saying this is about getting undesirable people off the bus."
That notion appears to run opposite of UTA's stated aim to increase Salt Lake County ridership - now at 57,000 on an average weekday - by 12 percent during the next three years.
Jones said UTA staffers are reading every comment and looking for trouble spots. A revised proposal will go to UTA general manager John Inglish by the end of this month, with a final announcement expected by mid-May.
*Tonight at 6:30, the Tooele County Courthouse auditorium.
* Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., the Provo City Library.
UTA will accept comments regarding the proposed fare structure until April 18.