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More rail vs. more buses? UTA seen as both good, bad example

Published December 11, 2013 8:55 pm

U.S. House panel • Witnesses for, against more federal funding point to Utah agency.
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Some witnesses told Congress on Wednesday that benefits from the Utah Transit Authority's many new rail lines show reasons to increase federal funding for such projects.

But another witness said those UTA projects made commuting worse and are examples of why Congress should end subsidies for expensive rail projects and push agencies instead to focus on cheaper, more effective bus service.

That occurred during a hearing before the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, in Utah last week for the opening of the new Sugar House Streetcar line, testified, "Utah has now completed 70 miles of new transit service in seven years. The state has more than doubled transit capacity as its population grows more than twice as fast as other states."

He said that not only decreases congestion and air pollution, but also boosts jobs.

"A few days ago, I rode commuter rail down to Provo and Orem from Salt Lake," Rogoff said. "I saw firsthand the huge number of jobs created there as companies such as Adobe, eBay and Nu Skin set up shop near the commuter rail stations."

Greg Hughes, chairman of the UTA board, said new TRAX and FrontRunner lines "have spurred roughly $7 billion in private development along their corridors." He added they have helped cut traffic congestion by taking more commuters off the road and reduced the need for parking at universities and Salt Lake City International Airport.

He said recent TRAX and FrontRunner expansion cost $2.3 billion, but the federal government paid only $544 million of that — showing that local governments are willing to do their share and help stretch federal dollars.

Rogoff said recent cuts by Congress meant that for the first time in memory, the Federal Transit Administration was unable to make any funding agreements for new projects. And projects that already had funding deals were given less than called for in those agreements. Hughes encouraged Congress "to restore and expand" such funding.

However, Randal O'Toole, senior fellow with the Cato Institute, which promotes limited government, testified that current federal programs give transit agencies incentives to choose more costly transportation alternatives — which he says often bring higher taxes and worse service. He included UTA as an example.

"In 1990, the share of commuters taking transit to work was much higher in Denver and Salt Lake City than in Las Vegas," he said. "Since then, Denver and Salt Lake have both opened light-rail lines and seen transit's share of commuters drop.

"Meanwhile, Las Vegas focused on improving bus service and doubled the share of commuters riding transit," O'Toole added. "Today, transit carries a larger share of commuters in Las Vegas than in Denver or Salt Lake City."

ldavidson@sltrib.com