Salt Lake City seeks major transit improvements, but money could be a roadblock

The City council is debating whether to phase in improvements, or take big steps quickly at a steep cost.<br>

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City is proposing major improvements to transit, but the city council is unsure how to fund them. A UTA TRAX train climbs out of downtown Salt Lake City as it heads to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah Monday June 24, 2013. The Salt Lake Chamber and its Utah Transportation Coalition has released a study on the impact of investing in UtahÕs transportation system.

Three of every four Salt Lake City residents would enjoy buses or trains coming at least every 15 minutes within two blocks of their homes, under a new draft city master plan for transit over the next 20 years.

But money is a big hurdle. The plan would cost at least an extra $7.7 million a year in operating costs alone, not to mention money needed to improve facilities.

The city council and the Utah Transit Authority are trying to figure out how to fund it. And they are debating whether it is wiser to phase it in over time — with some low-cost small successes to build support for bigger steps later — or to take bold, expensive moves to implement much of an enhanced system quickly.

City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said it’s a chicken-and-egg question of whether the city first needs more transit riders to justify expanding its system, or it needs a better system to attract riders.

She argued the system “needs a full set of legs to walk,” and the city should try to take big attention-grabbing steps quickly to build ridership. The comments came during a 2½-hour discussion by the council on the proposed master plan this week.

Some of her colleagues agreed.

“I tend to be a proponent of go big or go home as well,” said Council Chairman Stan Penfold.

While that would take extra money, he noted that Salt Lake City residents supported Proposition 1 in 2015 to raise transit taxes — even though the county as a whole voted it down amid controversy over UTA salaries, extensive travel and sweetheart deals with developers.

“I think there‘s a willingness on the part of the residents of Salt Lake City to invest in transit.”<br>— Councilman Stan Penrod

“Salt Lake City approved it above a 60 percent rate, so I think there’s a willingness on the part of the residents of Salt Lake City to invest in transit,” he said.

Councilmember Lisa Adams said, “This needs to be the right plan with the right amount of investment to make it work” — and doing too little too slowly would not bring the benefits or support for transit that the city seeks.

“I know from talking to our customers that they want and need a better level of service.” <br>—UTA CEO Jerry Benson

UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson told the council that he agrees with the draft master plan findings that vastly improved transit is needed in the city.

UTA President Jerry Benson (center) discusses a transit master plan with the Salt Lake City Council on Aug. 8, 2017.

Residents repeatedly tell UTA that service “doesn’t start early enough. It doesn’t go late enough. I don’t have enough frequency. I can’t conveniently make all of my trips,” he said. “You have a coherent plan to address some of those challenges.”

But each long, new bus line with service every 15 minutes all day costs about $1 million a year to operate, Benson said. And the master plan envisions several such lines on the city’s grid system of streets, spaced so that stops for rapid-routes would be available within two blocks of 73 percent residents when fully implemented.

The master plan looks at a variety of ways to raise money needed — from seeking more federal grants to raising local taxes. The city council says it plans more extended talks with Mayor Jackie Biskupski about how to fund the plan before formally adopting it.

Without more money available now, Benson said perhaps the city and UTA should pick one or two affordable projects to build some success.

The master plan suggests, for example, starting by creating a frequent-transit corridor on 200 South between downtown and the University of Utah for bus — and potentially for future bus rapid transit or streetcar service. Benson warned that could reduce service elsewhere, unless additional money is found.

Still, Benson also said he would love to see quick big steps to improve service, if ways to fund them are found. “I know from talking to our customers that they want and need a better level of service. So personally, I would like to see that happen. That takes more resources.”

The UTA chief said, “Until it happens, I’m also happy to do incremental things…. We’re not a taxing authority. So we have to take responsibility to live within our means.”

When work on the master plan began four years ago, some city officials and candidates questioned whether the city should perhaps form its own transit agency to provide such things as build extra streetcar lines and other service.

Biskupski, in her 2015 election campaign endorsed the idea of the city creating its own bus system that would run in addition to and separately from UTA. She hasn’t publicly pursued such a concept since taking office.

While the master plan weighed such options, it recommends continuing to partner with UTA — but “buying up” with city resources to contract with UTA for much of the extra service it seeks.

“I was very happy to see partnership as a theme in this plan. I know we can work on this together,” Benson told the council.

While officials are discussing how to raise money for the plan, increasing fares appears not to be an option under consideration. The plan recommends seeking ways to decrease fares, noting the standard $2.50 one-way pass “is high for many Salt Lake City families” and reduces transit’s competitiveness.

While the master plan was initially ordered in part to help chart possible future streetcar extensions and lines, Councilman Derek Kitchen noted most mention of a streetcar has disappeared in the current draft.

Officials said that was ordered by the mayor, and said the plan takes a more neutral approach on whether buses or trains should be used on frequent-transit routes. Kitchen and other council members said they want to hear more from Biskupski about reasons for that move before approving the plan.