The Utah Transit Authority just finished, or will complete in coming months, $2.4 billion worth of new projects: TRAX lines to South Jordan, West Valley City, Salt Lake City International Airport and Draper, a FrontRunner line to Provo and the Sugar House streetcar.
What’s next after the build-out blitz?
UTA wants to "restore some of the service that has been cut," says spokesman Gerry Carpenter.
Sales taxes — which provide 71 percent of UTA’s revenue — took a dive when the recession hit, just as the big projects began. The UTA now receives about $80 million less in sales tax than it had projected for 2013 when the projects were planned. To make ends meet, UTA made cuts in night and weekend service, plus reducing or reworking bus routes.
As a consequence, for example, when the airport TRAX line opens in April, tight budgets will not allow UTA to run it early enough to service some morning flights, or late enough for the last several arriving night flights — and the transit gap will be worse on weekends.
While providing more frequent service is UTA’s next top priority, Chief Planning Officer Matt Sibul says the agency also has many more construction projects in various phases of design — but first "we are going after low-hanging fruit" with less expensive strategies. That includes focusing on "bus rapid-transit" lines, or sort of a TRAX on rubber tires that avoids the cost of rail construction.
It’s all part of achieving what UTA General Manager Mike Allegra says is UTA’s two-part grand vision for the future: First, having a major transit stop within a mile of 90 percent of the Wasatch Front’s population; and, second, having a bus or train come every 15 minutes all day long.
"That would do away with the need for printed schedules because service would be so frequent," Allegra says.
He also wants short trips to be so cheap "that there will be a pass in every pocket." UTA is moving toward that by planning "distance-based" fares on TRAX and buses, instead of flat fees for trips of any length. It says that change could come as soon as the next year or two. Over the longer term, by 2020, it also hopes to move to a cash-free fare system, requiring passes or pre-purchased cards to ride.
Increased frequency » Sibul says UTA has been studying what its next step should be after the current expansion projects are complete. He said what jumped out most "is amping up the 15-minute services that connect" the new lines more frequently, to boost their usefulness to riders.
Such integration, he said, will help "really make those work and feed off each other better."
Carpenter said that as the economy improves and generates more sales tax and fares, UTA will be constantly looking at which routes and times of day could benefit most from more frequent service — and target those first.
But the changes could come slowly and gradually.
"We are comfortable and confident we have the funds to operate the system we’ve built, but there isn’t a lot of room in our current budgets and our current plan to dramatically increase our services. We do have plans to moderately increase some services," Carpenter said.
For example, he said UTA found demand for the FrontRunner commuter train is higher than expected after its new extension from Salt Lake City to Provo opened. So it announced this week it is adding trains during peak hours and doubling the window when trains are available to every 30 minutes instead of every hour.
UTA isn’t just waiting for sales-tax revenue to climb to invest in service improvements, but is actively seeking ways to stretch its current money.
Among the efforts Carpenter describes is an attempt to partner with the University of Utah, Salt Lake City and the Chamber of Commerce to run additional trains between the central business district and the U.
He notes a similar partnership with Park City and Summit County helped create a new bus service connection with Salt Lake City.
UTA is looking at working with more school districts, too, said Jerry Benson, UTA chief operating officer. About a third of Salt Lake City School District students who ride buses to school now use UTA routes, and he said more partnerships could save taxpayers from buying extra buses at the same time it generates more revenue for UTA.
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