UTA’s big choice: Boost bus frequency or cover more areas

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Transit Authority bus riders wait out the rain in shelters along 200 North in Farmington in 2019.

The Utah Transit Authority board faces a big question that could refocus its bus service for years, and create a new set of winners and losers among taxpayers.

Should it increase bus frequency in busy, densely populated areas to boost ridership, or spend its money instead to cover more geographic areas — including in sparsely populated neighborhoods?

The board has a self-imposed deadline to decide by month’s end how to balance those competing interests. No matter what, that seems bound to upset some and please others.

“To the extent that it changes anything, you’re going to have controversy,” but that isn’t necessarily bad, warned Jarrett Walker, a consultant helping the board sort through the issue toward refocusing the agency’s bus service.

“If you tell us to turn the dial in a way that will add service somewhere and lessen service someplace else, the more controversy there will be” — but it also may make for a more efficient and well-used system, he said. “Transit has to be useful. And if it's not useful, you're not going to attract” riders.

The board recently heard reports about what the public and local officials want: They generally prefer increasing frequency in busy areas by cutting back on geographic coverage.

UTA researched that by inviting the public earlier this year to take an online survey about those questions — and about 3,400 people responded. The agency also invited officials from cities and other interested groups to workshops to spend several hours discussing preferences.

In Salt Lake, Utah and Tooele counties, the public said it prefers that existing service remain about where it is: with 60% of service targeting increased ridership and 40% providing service in expanded coverage areas. Stakeholder groups, however, prefer making it a 70-30 split toward more frequent service in busy areas.

If new service is added in those three counties, both the public and stakeholders prefer using a 70-30 split with such new money toward raising ridership.

Opinions are a bit different in Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties — where the current service split now is 40% for ridership and 60% for coverage. Both the public and stakeholders there prefer changing that to a 50-50 split.

For any new service added with additional money, the public would like to see it also follow a 50-50 split — but stakeholders want the divide to be 60-40 for more frequency in densely populated areas.

Surveys and workshops also asked people about their priorities when geographic coverage is expanded.

In all areas, they preferred providing service first for people with no transportation alternatives (perhaps in poorer areas where fewer people have cars). The next priority would be serving growth or new developments outside of current service areas. The final priority would be to reach remote residents who want at least some service for the taxes they pay.

UTA board Chairman Carlton Christensen said he does not see the choice as only between ridership and coverage but rather how to best blend the two.

He said some sparsely populated areas likely still need some service — but perhaps providing it only in the morning and evening would cover 80% of their needs and allow shifting resources to busier areas.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Carlton Christensen, chairman of the Utah Transit Authority Board makes a few comments at the celebration of the new double-track rail line for the S-Line Sugar House Streetcar, Friday, April 5, 2019.

He added that some new ideas — such as “microtransit” — could handle much of the need in small-population areas. UTA is about to begin a test of such service in southern Salt Lake County. It is a blend of Uber/Lyft and traditional bus service.

Riders can use a smartphone — or call a service center — to request a van ride to a transit stop or other destination and receive an estimated time for pickup and arrival. It will have a set fare, instead of varying by mileage. And other passengers may be picked up along the way.

UTA board member Beth Holbrook said she sees results of surveys as showing the public believes the agency has about the right mix of service so far, and that only minor adjustments are needed.

“I feel like this is really validating,” she said. “Our service planners have done a good job, and the service generally is doing what the community thinks it needs to do.”

Walker, who consults on similar projects worldwide, said most transit agencies, when they do such reviews, end up shifting toward offering more frequent service in busy areas. But he urged UTA to figure out and follow its own priorities for what it sees as success.

The board aims to set final mixes for future bus service soon, probably at its next meeting, on July 31. That would allow it to keep on schedule for deeper planning on how to alter routes to improve overall service.

The agency’s restructured board has vowed to try to improve bus service. That move comes after critics complained that the agency shortchanged local bus service as it went $2 billion in debt to build new train systems — which was among many reasons the Legislature enacted reforms for UTA, including creating a new board.