George Chapman: What will be the future of mass transit in Utah?

First Published      Last Updated Jun 24 2017 03:00 pm

The Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force met recently and, with public testimony, started discussing the future of mass transit in Utah. The debt that UTA needed to complete rail projects a decade ahead of time resulted in a 30 percent decrease in bus service. The interest cost of the debt is more than the budget for running buses and limits all service expansion and projects.

Billions in transit projects were planned in order to "limit the growth in travel demand" to take pressure off of roads. But the plan assumed significant federal money for transit and a transit tax increase that failed in Salt Lake and Utah counties. And service increases planned would be a very small portion of any new funding.

Mass transit riders and taxpayers want more areas served with more frequent buses and increased service and frequency on weekends and later at night. Many think that transit should be serving riders, not cities. But UTA's Board of Trustees is appointed by municipalities which want projects. Riders do not seem to be getting the attention that they should. The task force will be looking at different ways of appointing or electing transit board members and considering options like taking away projects responsibility from UTA. Utah state government may even take over some UTA functions.

UTA may have a lack of funding for new rail projects. But recent studies show that bus mass transit systems can be more successful and financially efficient than rail. When comparing 10-minute rail service with 10-minute bus service, there is very little difference in public approval.

Rail does provide the permanence that can encourage investment and justify loans from financial entities. But destination is an important part of the equation for rail success. And not every city is a destination.

The cost of construction, which may be more than expected from other countries' experiences, also came up. But the engineers at the Wasatch Front Regional Council, who provided the cost estimates, are experienced and knowledgeable and used U.S. experience on rail construction.

UTA and Salt Lake City are arguing about who will pay for the expensive airport TRAX reconfiguration. The SLC Airport wanted a fancy design. But Utah does not allow airport passenger fees to be used (which other cities use for mass transit). If UTA is forced to pay for it, since UTA does not have the money now, which county taxpayers will pay for the project? Utah needs to step in and solve the stalemate.

Studies show that increased bus service can result in ridership increases of up to 67 percent. In addition, new technology can provide a cost efficient bus system that can use a bus lane at a traffic light and a traffic light that changes to green for a bus, when a bus comes to the intersection. This is called an enhanced bus. It can be as fast as a BRT but it only costs $1.5 million per mile versus $15 million per mile for a BRT. Except at the lights, traffic lanes are not lost to cars. That seems to be where UTA should be focusing their future plans on, especially if funding will continue to be constrained.

The future of mass transit in Utah is service. When the next bus is an hour away, people won't ride mass transit. When it takes an hour to get to a destination instead of 15 minutes, people won't ride mass transit. When there is no transit service, people won't ride mass transit. The best and most cost-effective way to increase mass transit ridership is through bus service increases. That is why mass transit should first focus on the least expensive system, buses. Then when ridership develops, BRT and rail can be justified.

Working groups from the task force will be meeting over the summer to analyze the various studies and suggestions. The future of mass transit in Utah will come out of the recommendations of the working groups and the task force.

George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City and a candidate for City Council District 5.