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New UTA goals include doubling ridership by 2020

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Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo Utah lawmaker Joel Briscoe wants to increase the transit sales tax to pay for restoring some of the bus service sacrificed in the development of rail lines during the Great Recession. He believes expanded bus service is a cheaper, more effective way to get service to outlying areas, increase ridership, and ultimately improve air quality along the Wasatch Front.

By Lee Davidson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Oct 28 2013 01:01AM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:36PM

Utah Transit Authority has a new official goal to double its current ridership by 2020.

By then, it has another new goal: To cut 25 percent off the overall time for customers’ trips — including delays, waiting for transfers, getting to and from bus or train stops.

Yet another new goal calls for increasing service levels 50 percent by restoring some bus service, mostly nights and weekends, cut recently to pay for operating five rail lines built in the past five years.

Bonuses for executives — which have been large and controversial — also will be tied to making major progress annually on these goals.

Achieving all of that may sound wonderful, but it would come with a cost.

Success depends on "full funding of the 2040 Unified Transportation Plan" adopted by regional and state planning agencies for new mass transit projects and restored operations. UTA recently told the Legislature that fully funding the plan would require a 67 percent increase in its share of sales taxes.

Customer focus • UTA’s board gave final approval this week to its new "2020 strategic goals," developed after three separate day-long retreats with local elected officials, business leaders and rider groups.

"The most commonly heard message from the stakeholders was that UTA should first and foremost focus on our customers," says a document explaining the goals. "Knowing what our customers want and need, and responding accordingly, should be UTA’s core mission."

So many of the new goals focus on attracting riders, cutting travel time, increasing service and "offering new fare products and equitable fare policies," including working toward basing fares on distance traveled instead of a flat fee for trips of any length.

"We want to make sure we keep moving forward" after completing $2.5 billion worth of TRAX, FrontRunner and streetcar lines in five years, said UTA board member Charles Henderson, who led the charge to develop the new goals.

Tax hike • Atop the goal list is "full funding of the 2040 Unified Transportation Plan."

Bruce Jones, UTA’s general counsel, told lawmakers earlier this year that funding the plan would require raising UTA’s share of sales tax from about six-tenths of a cent to a full penny for every $1 spent, a 67 percent increase. UTA now receives about $207 million annually in sales tax revenue, about five times more than the $47 million it currently gets from passenger fares.

To increase the transit sales tax would require the Legislature to raise current caps. Then counties would have to put the increase on the ballot for voter approval, Jones said.

He also told legislators that while UTA could operate its new rail lines without increasing sales tax, "it would not permit the additional capital projects that we feel the community is insisting upon. And we think a good transit system would include a restoration of some of the bus services … not presently in our plan."

Besides hoping to offer more frequency on bus and train routes, long-term UTA plans include numerous "bus rapid transit" lines that are like TRAX on rubber wheels, where buses have dedicated traffic lanes and the ability to turn traffic signals in their favor. It also is looking at long-term streetcar, commuter rail and TRAX extensions.

Yearly steps • The board also adopted goals for just 2014 as first steps toward the 2020 ambitions. Managers must largely meet those yearly goals to earn annual bonuses. Among 2014 goals is for managers to "develop a plan to educate and inform" the public and partners "on full funding and implementation of the Unified Transportation Plan."

The Tribune reported earlier this year that top UTA executives split $750,000 in 2012 bonuses for meeting goals deemed too easy by critics. It included bonuses of $25,000 each to some officials who earn more than $300,000 a year.

New goals they must hit next year for bonuses include increasing ridership by 4 percent over 2013 numbers. Some UTA board members were concerned that growth target would not get them to the 2020 ridership goal.

"Four percent doesn’t get us doubling by 2020," said trustee Keith Bartholomew. "But 4 percent is more than double the expected population increase next year. So what we essentially are saying is we want to grow our ridership faster than our population."

Added Henderson: "We are going to need [extra] spending to meet that goal [to double ridership] by 2020."

Ridership up • UTA General Manger Michael Allegra told the board that ridership has picked up recently. It was flat or down a little earlier this year — despite completion of the new airport TRAX and the Salt Lake City to Provo FrontRunner extension. That changed in late summer when the Draper TRAX extension opened and fare promotions were added.

Although ridership for the first nine months of 2014 is up just 2.5 percent, it rose 12 percent in September, he said. "We had a lot of special events [like football games] at the University of Utah," Allegra added. "We had Comic Con."

Ridership has been helped by things such as the University of Utah paying for sports tickets that are good all day on UTA, the Utah State Fair offering free return trips, and UTA offering a 20 percent discount to people who use new electronic FAREPAY cards in the next five months.

Also last month, Salt Lake City and UTA announced they are teaming to allow city residents to buy an annual pass — good on TRAX, FrontRunner, buses and the Sugar House Streetcar — for $360. Such passes cost others $198 a month, or $2,376 a year. So Salt Lake City residents could save $2,0126 a year. That program may be expanded if it works well in Salt Lake City, Allegra has said.

ldavidson@sltrib.com

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