Becker: The success of Utah Transit Authority
Our quality of life on the Wasatch Front is inextricably linked to a strong transit system. Remember last January, when we had the worst air quality in the nation? Or the most recent time you were stuck in traffic on I-15?
It's hard to see how more freeways will achieve the desired transportation future we want.
Since 2005, more than $4.3 billion has been spent to improve state roads in Salt Lake and Utah counties. Vehicular use has grown at twice the pace of our population, which is expected to double in the next 30 years.
To sizably increase vehicular capacity, we may need to double-deck I-15. And with costs for building above ground running five times the cost of building at ground level, double-decking I-15 would cost billions of dollars. That would also mean more road congestion and worsening air quality. Look at California to see if that works.
Mass transit addresses transportation capacity more efficiently, as the costs are relatively small to improve service. Cars can be added to trains and the number of trains per hour can be increased; more buses and drivers can be added to increase frequency and area coverage all without building new roads.
So, why aren't there more trains on the tracks and more buses on the roads? Despite what you might read, high salaries and international travel are not the reason. Nationally, UTA is recognized as one of the most efficient, well-run transit agencies.
UTA is unique in Utah and across the country for completing every project on time and under budget.
Compared nationally to other transit agencies, UTA is significantly underfunded. UTA receives between .30-cent and .69-cent sales tax per dollar spent in the urban counties. Most transit agencies, including Denver, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Austin, receive at least a full 1 cent in sales tax support. And, many of those cities also receive state funds for transit.
We compete nationally for our transit executives. There are about 100 transit agencies in the country. Executives in those agencies work in a highly specialized field and often move from city to city. While public servants should not be paid the high executive salaries we see in the transit field, we must compete and pay for the quality employees we need.
Transit isn't alone in this way. Airport executives don't compete locally; they move around the country and receive high salaries. Years ago, Salt Lake City officials decided they wouldn't pay national-level wages and would use only local expertise at a locally based salary. Soon the city reversed course to secure capable airport management.
As for travel, UTA has led local leaders on trips to look at mountain transportation systems, hoping to identify alternatives to putting more cars on over-congested, tight, steep canyon roads.
Those who have responsibility to make decisions about transportation in the Wasatch Mountains can visit existing mountain operations, ask questions about what works, and then compare that knowledge with practices here. Experience of others and our own judgment give us the best hope for wise decisions about our beloved Wasatch Mountains. Money spent on these trips is an investment in good outcomes.
Improving transit service requires having revenues that reflect the facilities, services and quality of life we want. The Legislature has placed a cap on UTA sales tax. To improve service and facilities, we must increase revenues.
To change salaries for UTA officials, we must address the issue nationally. If we want cleaner air, a strong economy, a secure energy future and efficient use of government monies, we must invest in and support transit.
Ralph Becker is mayor of Salt Lake City.