The sleek $1 million electric hybrid Utah Valley Express bus is designed to look and act more like a rail car. Its station platforms are even elevated like a train’s, so passengers will not walk up bus stairs.
It has its own exclusive highway lanes — akin to a train using unshared tracks — for half of its 10.5-mile route through Provo and Orem, and will have priority control at traffic signals to speed it along.
It is 60 feet long instead of 40 like most buses, with an accordionlike structure in its middle that allows it to bend around curves. Passengers buy tickets before they board. Bike racks are onboard, not outside. It has much more standing room.
And the new bus rapid transit (BRT) system is what much of future transit along the Wasatch Front may look like. Utah County legislators and city officials received a preview ride and tour on Wednesday, months before the new system is scheduled to open in August.
“We have about 200 miles of bus rapid transit in future plans,” says Steve Meyer, interim executive director of the Utah Transit Authority. That includes BRTs through Davis County to Salt Lake City, from downtown Ogden to Weber State University and from West Valley City through Taylorsville to Murray.
UTA has operated a partial BRT in West Valley City for years: the MAX bus on 3500 South. But it has only one mile of exclusive lanes and uses shorter buses.
“So for purists,” Meyer said, the new Utah Valley Express “is really our first true BRT line.”
While it is scheduled to begin service in August, operators will begin on-the-street training next week — while final construction on the line continues.
“It’s really a cost-effective option for communities that just don’t meet the ridership threshold for rail,” Meyer said, noting a BRT costs a fraction of a TRAX light rail line.
For example, transit work on the Provo-Orem line cost about $150 million out of a $200 million total price tag, with the rest for additional highway enhancements and bridge replacements made at the same time by the Utah Department of Transportation.
In contrast, the mid-Jordan extension of TRAX on what is now part of its Red Line cost $535 million when it was completed in 2011 to cover an almost identical distance.
“This operates like rail,” Meyer says. “You pay before you board. So you don’t have that delay in paying the operator [plus BRT buses have three doors to speed entry]. You get the advantages of a rail system on a bus system.”
In Provo and Orem, UVX buses will come every six minutes in peak morning and evening commute times — whereas most other bus routes have frequencies of every 15, 30 or 60 minutes. UVX will have 16 of its extra-long buses on the road at any given time, and will have 25 overall.
The UVX will have limited stops — only 18 along its route, as opposed to regular buses that may stop every few blocks. Its stations will have electronic maps showing in real time where buses are, and when the next one should arrive.
“It’s going to be great for the community, connecting two universities, two major malls, two downtown areas for the two biggest cities in Utah County,” Meyer said.
Stops include the Orem FrontRunner Station, Utah Valley University, University Mall, Brigham Young University, the LDS Missionary Training Center, downtown Provo, the Provo Town Centre Mall and Provo FrontRunner Station.
The project has been controversial, and resident groups sued unsuccessfully to stop it, arguing, among other things, that it would have low ridership and would complicate and slow traffic for other vehicles. The project also had an $11 million cost overrun beyond its initial $190 million pricetag because of higher-than-expected bids and land costs.
The project even emerged in a congressional debate Tuesday heading into the June 26 Republican primary in the 3rd District. Rep. John Curtis, former mayor of Provo, is a supporter and challenger Chris Herrod opposes BRT.
But Meyer is optimistic that ridership will be solid, in part because of a new program by UVU and BYU to provide transit passes to their students, faculty and staff — and, in some cases, family members. It is expected to provide up to 100,000 passes a year.
Also, he said UTA worked with the LDS Church on a pass program for its missionaries to use buses and rail to travel from the faith’s Provo training center to the Salt Lake City International Airport.
“If you had to use a coin slot or a credit card every time you use your car, that would be a barrier to entry. We’re going to eliminate that. Students, faculty and staff will have a pass in their pocket they simply can tap on,” he said.
“It’s going to be a big deal. We’re excited to see how many people will take advantage of it,” and how well the new BRT works as the transit agency eyes building them elsewhere, he said.