Business executive after business executive told the Utah Transit Authority Board on Wednesday that they always ride mass transit when they travel in New York, Washington or San Francisco — but use it little at home in Utah.
"I think UTA serves the spine of the Wasatch Front really well," said Jonathan Johnson III, executive vice chairman of Overstock.com. "But there are places that are at the end of the rib" where UTA service is inconvenient or nonexistent. He says his company is far from the spine, so few of his workers use transit.
Other executives said UTA’s system that uses buses mainly to feed rail lines instead of offering direct service creates too many transfers and slows travel — and it may be wise to restore some canceled express bus routes. Others said UTA may be too expensive for blue-collar workers, and it needs to work with employers to reduce pass or fare costs.
That came in the second of a series of "listening sessions" the UTA board is holding with governments, businesses and customers to plan what should come after completion later this year of $2.4 billion in expanded TRAX and FrontRunner lines. In the first session, mayors earlier urged UTA to increase service frequency with more buses instead of additional costly, big rail projects.
The business leaders participating Wednesday praised UTA for completing new rail lines early and under budget, for working with them to serve emerging business centers and for seeking feedback. But they said it is time to focus on increasing service frequency beyond the north-south spine of the Wasatch Front.
Sophia DiCaro, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the agency has been told by businesses that many workers quit riding UTA when it cut direct bus service to universities or business centers to "primarily use buses to feed into the rails." She said restoring more direct bus service "may ease the social cost of what it takes to ride."
Jim Smith, president of the Davis Chamber of Commerce, said, "The trunk lines are established north and south about as far as we can go. ... But now in Davis County it’s a matter of east-west access," and added, "I think that’s where our efforts need to go for the next little while."
Bob Wheaton, president of Deer Valley Resort, praised one relatively new service leading away from the spine of the valley — bus service between Park City and Salt Lake City. He said it has especially helped workers, and out-of-state visitors who want to take transit and avoid renting cars.
"It seems our ‘destination guests’ get mass transit a lot better than our local guests do," he said, noting that weeks when ski passes for Utahns are blacked out, his resort is sold out but the parking lots have plenty of space. During spring weekends attracting mostly locals, he said all parking is full for miles — but the mountain is not sold out.
Jim Edwards, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, said the transit-riding habit of many out-of-staters led several companies to choose to move to Utah in places where transit is convenient.
Companies such as Adobe, Workplace and Ebay also have missions that seek to be environmentally friendly, he said, and they want to support mass transit to help reduce air pollution.
Smith, of the Davis Chamber, said that UTA should work harder to keep fares low to attract more blue-collar workers.
"Historically, UTA has been very creative in working with businesses in establishing some very creative packages" for discount passes, he said. "The feedback I’m getting is that is not so much the case right now, that some of the packages are not as competitive as they might be." UTA also now has some of the highest fares in the nation.
UTA General Manager Michael Allegra told the session he has goals for UTA to eventually have a major transit station within a mile of 90 percent of the Wasatch Front’s population, and would like to see buses and trains run every 15 minutes. However, he said UTA is developing strategy on how best to get there over time in an affordable manner.
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