UTA balancing act
It's about time. That's why more Utahns don't ride the Utah Transit Authority. Trips take too long, there are too many transfers and TRAX and bus service are not well enough synchronized to prevent annoying waits at platforms and bus stops.
Can these problems be fixed? Sure, given enough money and care. Utahns had better hope they can be fixed, because billions of federal and local dollars have been invested in UTA's vastly expanded railroad system.
As the population grows, public transit should become more attractive. That's because automobile commuting will become more congested, fuel prices will probably rise and air quality will worsen.
For the time being, however, only about 3 percent of Utah commuters ride the UTA, according to 2010 census data. In some areas, the percentage is much higher. At the University of Utah, it's 30 percent. Downtown Salt Lake City also sees higher usage. Still, given the huge public investment, 3 percent is abysmally low.
Why? Again, it's a matter of time. Convenience and cost also play roles.
A Brookings Institution study touted the UTA for putting 64 percent of people in its service area within a 90-minute ride to work. But a 90-minute commute is much longer than an automobile trip for most Utahns. If that UTA trip involves a long walk to a stop, most people will say, forget it.
UTA says that when its latest train lines are completed, 75 percent of the Wasatch Front population will live within three miles of a major transit stop. But few people are going to walk three miles to take transit, particularly in bad weather. Three blocks, maybe. And that means transfers.
When it comes to convenience, it's hard to beat the private automobile. Running errands on public transit is a hassle. Going to meetings away from the office is a no-can-do on transit if you have to travel any distance and you want to get there on time.
For a pure commute, however, transit can save time because you can work on a train or a bus.
Finally, there's cost. A monthly UTA pass currently costs $78.50. A one-way fare is $2.35. That's not cheap, and cost deters some riders. Yet the slow economy has choked off growth in UTA's sale-tax receipts, which pay 80 percent of operating costs, so it is planning fare increases. New distance-based fares would help some riders, but if UTA eliminates subsidized fares to the U. and downtown, ridership will surely fall.
It's a tricky balancing act. So far, UTA hasn't got it right.