Special UTA buses for legislative session averaged only 5 passengers per trip

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) UTA's new long "BRT" (bus rapid transit) is parked in front of the Capitol during Transit Day on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City Friday February 2, 2018.

It sounded like a decent idea: help address horrendous parking problems around the state Capitol during the 45-day legislative session and reduce air pollution by offering free UTA buses there every 15 minutes.

But those “Capitol Connector” buses averaged only five passengers per trip this year, according to agency data requested by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Since buses have between 35 and 37 seats each, the few passengers using them at least had plenty of room to stretch out.

“When UTA began offering this service, the organization recognized this would involve an educational process and it would take some time to build ridership on this route,” said UTA spokesman Carl Arky.

Now that the session is over and ridership was less than overwhelming, Arky said UTA “will take a close look at the Capitol Connector and consider all of the factors involved before making a determination about plans for this route for future legislative sessions.”

UTA said the Route 500 buses between downtown areas and the Capitol had a total of 18,496 passengers during the 33 working days of the legislative session (not counting weekends).

That averages to 560 passengers a day.

The service provided 111 trips per day. So that was a total of 3,663 trips, with an average of five passengers each. All but one stop on the bus route was within the downtown free fare zone, so most trips were free.

Arky said the service was offered because “going into the legislative session, UTA recognized parking would be at a premium at the Capitol and wanted to provide an alternative for the public as well as legislators, staff members, lobbyists, etc.”

He adds, “UTA also wanted to help reduce air pollution during a time of year when Salt Lake Valley typically experiences its worst inversions. By offering this special route with fifteen-minute service, UTA feels it met both those objectives during this year’s session.”

Legislators during the session passed SB136 to rename and vastly restructure the scandal-tainted agency.

The bill, if signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, would replace the part-time, 16-member UTA Board with a full-time, three-member commission seen as more able to watchdog the agency criticized for high executive pay, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers.

The new commissioners would serve at the will of the governor, and could be fired for any reason.

The bill also requires UTA to disband its own in-house attorneys, and rely on the Utah Attorney General’s Office for legal representation — which sponsors said provides additional state oversight.

It also calls for UTA to be renamed the Transit District of Utah. Sponsors said that will help to send a message that UTA is changing and is trustworthy. But Herbert, among others, criticized that name change as expensive and unnecessary — and he has called for reconsideration over coming months.