UTA asks public: Would you rather have more frequent buses, or have them serve more areas?

Critics often complain that the Utah Transit Authority shortchanged local bus service as it went $2 billion in debt to build new train systems. But the agency’s newly restructured board now is asking the public to help it make key decisions to improve bus service.

It launched an online survey Thursday and announced plans for public meetings to figure out how to balance two competing questions: should buses cover more geographic area, or focus instead on maximizing frequency.

“Should UTA have a bus network focusing on increasing ridership? This, of course, would entail fewer routes with greater frequency, which would serve more densely populated areas,” said UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen.

“The other question is: should UTA focus on coverage? This approach would reach more areas and people, but with less frequency and lower overall ridership,” he said. “Or is there an answer somewhere in between.”

To decide those questions — and how they fit into other overall transportation questions — UTA is partnering with the Utah Department of Transportation and two regional transportation planning agencies: the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Mountainland Association of Governments

“I applaud what UTA is doing. Rather than going out and assuming what the public wants, they are asking,” said UDOT Planning Director Jeff Harris. “Planning can be messy and time consuming.... But to do it right, you have to take that time and it has to involve your stakeholders.”

UTA launched a new website — rideuta.com/Service-Choices — to explain questions it is facing and their consequences, with a online survey that takes about about five minutes to complete. It says it plans public meetings on the topic also.

“Bus service is a critical part of UTA’s equation,” Christensen said, noting about half of all UTA rides are split between buses and trains.

Shawn Seager, planning director for the Mountainland Association of Governments, said similar collaboration helped design the new Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit line in Provo and Orem in a way that quintupled bus ridership along the route — from 2,000 to 10,000 trips a day.

He said that was helped by service designed to be fast, frequent and free — helped in part by a federal grant that, for now, has offered free fares on that route.

“If we can kind of play off that model, I think we can do a lot more in Utah Valley,” he said.

Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, said amid rapid population growth that has largely filled in the valleys, the ability to widen highways such as Interstate 15 is “starting to become prohibitively expensive.”

So, he added, “This is a perfect time for us to focus on how do we create a vibrant healthy bus network to go with our high-capacity transit routes. And this is really an opportunity for us to really take the pulse of the region.”

UDOT’s Harris, whose work usually focuses on highways, said, “We have to have a high-functioning system that includes light rail, commuter rail and the bus system” to pair with highways to handle expected growth.

The officials spoke in pouring, near-freezing rain at an outdoor news conference at UTA’s Salt Lake City Central Station. Looking at the rainstorm, Christensen said, “There are brighter days ahead here at UTA, and we look forward to hearing from you.”