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UTA passes budget without plans for fare increase

Published December 18, 2013 6:40 pm

Transportation • The agency projects expanded rail and bus services.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

The Utah Transit Authority board unanimously passed a 2014 budget Wednesday that envisions no fare increases next year — but still expands bus service hours by 4 percent and rail service by 16 percent, as several new lines will be operating for their first full year.

Funding for that expansion is expected to come from growth in ridership and sales-tax revenue.

The budget also funds efforts to allow:

• switching soon to a system that charges fares based on the length of trip, instead of a flat-fee for rides of any length

• using more buses powered by natural gas

• speeding up payments on UTA's debts after building five new major rail lines in five years.

The UTA last raised its fares in April, when a basic one-way fare rose from $2.35 to $2.50. The Salt Lake Tribune found then that UTA fares are among the highest in the nation — although UTA says they are comparable to systems most similar to it.

Even without another fare increase planned for next year, UTA is projecting a $15.7 million increase in revenue — from $309.8 million to $325.5 million. Most of that comes from sales taxes that it projects to increase in an improving economy. UTA also anticipates a 9.6 percent increase in revenue from fares from anticipated growth in ridership.

Robert Biles, UTA chief financial officer, earlier explained to board committees that projections include a 16.3 percent increase for rail services, reflecting the first full year of operations for three new rail lines — the airport TRAX extension that opened in April, the Draper TRAX extension that opened in August and the Sugar House Streetcar that began service this month.

UTA also projects a 3.8 percent increase in bus hours, as the agency is shifting focus from building new rail lines to trying to restore some of the bus service that had been cut to help fund the rail services.

Biles said the budget includes $2 million in work toward switching to a distance-based fare system, such as improving GPS systems showing where vehicles are (and length of trips taken) and electronic fare collection systems.

As UTA looks to use more buses powered by natural gas — because that fuel is cheaper than diesel and produces less pollution — UTA is spending $13.5 million for a depot in Salt Lake City that will service those buses and provide a refueling center for them. It also budgeted $8.87 million to buy 20 more natural-gas buses.

Biles said UTA budgeted another $1 million to speed up payments on money it borrowed to build new rail lines.

The budget includes $2.8 million for continued planning for a new "bus rapid transit" route between Provo and Orem, sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels where buses will have a dedicated lane and the ability to change traffic signals in their favor. It also includes $2.6 in planning for Wasatch Canyon transportation studies.