UTA says new Salt Lake County sales tax hike will go mostly to improve bus service — eventually

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Capitol Connector, route 500, picks up passengers at the Utah Stage Capitol building, Jan. 30, 2019. UTA says it plans on using extra revenue from a new sales tax to expand bus service, but only after intensive planning.

The Utah Transit Authority says it plans — eventually — to use most of the money from a newly approved sales tax hike in Salt Lake County to expand bus service as promised.

But first for a couple of years, it plans to spend most of this new revenue on studies and pilot projects to help design future service; to help build new garages and other facilities needed for expanded routes; and to accelerate maintenance and repair of aging TRAX train cars.

“We’re taking a phased approach to service implementation” over a few years, Steve Meyer, UTA interim executive director said Wednesday, explaining that the agency will need some time to design service, order and receive extra buses, hire and train more operators.

Back in 2015, Salt Lake County voters rejected Proposition 1 to raise sales taxes for transportation and transit, and UTA promised its portion would be used to expand bus service. The ballot measure died amid concern over high UTA executive salaries, extensive international travel and audits that criticized sweetheart deals for developers by the agency.

Last year, the Legislature restructured UTA — including creating a new board — to address such concerns. It also allowed the Salt Lake County Council to implement the sales tax hike without voter approval, which it did after city councils representing a majority of county residents endorsed the move.

The new tax charges an extra 2.5 cents per $10 purchase (or 0.25 cents per $1). UTA will receive a 40% slice of that tax beginning July 1 — and the rest goes to cities and the county for such things as improving roads.

Meyer said the tax hike is expected to generate $13.4 million for UTA during the first half year, and $28.1 million next year. He said it will increase UTA’s sales tax revenue by 7% a year, and its overall revenue by 5%.

After August 2021 — when UTA aims to launch most new expanded bus service in Salt Lake County — Meyer said UTA will aim to spend 71% of the tax hike on such bus service. Another 24% annually will go to maintenance of TRAX cars and 5% to improve service-related facilities.

In the short term, the agency is looking at spending 19% on bus service expansion (mostly by increasing hours served on some routes, which does not require buying more buses); 47% to improve service-related facilities; 28% to accelerate TRAX car rebuilds and maintenance; and 6% for administrative support.

Meyer said that before it designs more bus service, UTA wants to complete an ongoing study that has been asking residents whether its buses should cover more geographic area, or focus instead on maximizing frequency and ridership. Meyer said that should be completed in late summer or early fall.

UTA also plans to launch a yearlong pilot project this fall, using money from the tax hike, to test a new system that is a cross between traditional bus service and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

That “microtransit” project in southwest Salt Lake County will allow using a smartphone app to hail a ride to a specific destination and get an estimate of when a van would pick them up and drop them off (serving other passengers along the way). Like traditional bus service, the fare is a set amount — and may allow transfers to other UTA buses or trains.

If that project works well, UTA Chairman Carlton Christensen said it could affect future design of bus service systemwide — perhaps using such service to expand night service or to replace lightly used routes.

Meyer said UTA also wants to use the next couple years to use new tax hike money to help finish new maintenance garages and regional transfer facilities that would be needed for expanded service.

He said some will also be used to improve bus stops, add restrooms for bus drivers, improve signs in the system, and accelerate needed midlife maintenance and upgrades needed for older TRAX train cars (all of which are used in Salt Lake County).

Meyer said UTA will also continue to look at several projects that are too large to be handled by the current tax hike, including expanded Wasatch canyon service, a midvalley bus-rapid transit and express bus service on 5600 West. It is also overseeing a feasibility study about a $1 billion expansion of TRAX through the Point of the Mountain, looking ahead to when the prison is moved.

“Those are all areas we would continue to look at,” he said. “We’ll continue to work with our partners” to look at their needs and potential ways to fund them.