Salt Lake City is a mass transit success story. The city and the Utah Transit Authority deserve credit for creating and maintaining a meaningful system of buses and trains. There are many cities Salt Lake’s size and bigger that don’t have that.
The benefits of that investment are felt not just by city residents but by the valley as a whole. Each time a car gets left home, we all breathe a little easier, and air quality is just one advantage.
And while the entire Wasatch Front invests sales tax in UTA for a truly regional transit system, Salt Lake City has been willing to go beyond that, as evidenced by its commitment to the Sugar House streetcar line and the new $360 yearly UTA pass that goes on sale in March for city residents.
So it’s legitimate for Salt Lake to stretch further, as the city council wants to do with its Transit Master Plan. The city is willing to spend $150,000, and UTA will pick up another $200,000, for a $350,000 effort to plan the future of transit in the city.
That future should include a higher density of both routes and frequencies. A true urban transit system works best when people don’t worry about catching a train or bus because another one comes along soon. It also should be a system in which most people can walk a short distance to catch a ride.
Yes, this is another study, and it deserves qualified support. In this case, the qualifications are that the recommendations are realistic, and, most importantly, city residents are dragged into the process in all ways possible.
There’s a cautionary tale in the council’s decision earlier this year to extend that Sugar House streetcar north along 1100 East, a decision made after an earlier, $150,000 study. Whatever the merits of that decision, it became clear that it was a surprise to too many people who would be directly affected. The city rightly used the community councils during the planning process, and it offered details on the web for anyone willing to go find it, but that wasn’t enough.
Public outreach needs to be more intensive. That could mean more mailings. It could be more signage. It could be more public meetings. It could be all of those things. If those costs have to be factored into that $350,000 investment, they should be. The cost of pulling the public in too late will be higher. It remains to be seen if that 1100 East plan is still politically viable.
The rewards of more transit are multiple — cleaner air, less traffic and road repair, higher livability — all of which can translate into more economic development. But like all investments, it needs to be properly vetted by the people with the most at stake — city residents.
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