UTA opts for more frequent bus service over expanding coverage

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA bus in downtown Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.

The Utah Transit Authority board says current revenues won’t allow it to boost bus frequency and simultaneously cover more geographic areas. So, it chose Wednesday to lean heavily toward running popular routes more often, saying that will best build up ridership and serve the most people.

But the board also wants a bigger budget pie to allow both options. It asked planners to come up with scenarios to show voters and elected officials what expanded area coverage could look like if transit sales taxes are raised.

“We simply need to make the pie bigger,” Beth Holbrook, one of the three UTA board members, said Wednesday.

That was a common refrain.

“We’ve got to expand the pie because the population is growing and growing very quickly,” said fellow board member Kent Millington.

Board Chairman Carlton Christensen hopes “ultimately the pie grows big enough” to allow both more frequent service and better area coverage.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Carlton Christensen, chairman of the Utah Transit Authority Board, makes comments April 5, 2019 about the S-Line Streetcar in Sugar House. On Wednesday, Christensen and fellow board members said they will push for more frequent service over expanded transit coverage in the near future.

For much of the past year, UTA conducted online polls and held workshops with local leaders, who were asked how to balance more frequent service versus expanded area coverage.

In Salt Lake, Utah and Tooele counties, about 60% of bus service is designed mostly to increase ridership and 40% aims for expanded area coverage. UTA found that both the public and officials would like any added service to have a 70-30 split toward more frequent service.

In Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties, the split is now 40% for higher ridership and 60% for area coverage. Residents and officials there favored a 50-50 split for any new service.

The board directed agency planners Wednesday to follow, for now, roughly a 70-30 split for increased ridership — and perhaps 75-25 in Salt Lake County — when adding new service from recent tax hikes, but to develop at least three scenarios each for consideration in UTA’s northern, central and southern regions.

The board plans to choose a preferred approach next year for each area, but it may use the other scenarios to lobby counties to raise local transit taxes — or perhaps the state to offer more resources.

Millington said while increasing bus frequency may help the most residents now, it doesn’t address growth in now-isolated areas. He added that Utah County, which he represents, is expected to receive about half the Wasatch Front’s growth over the next 20 years — and UTA must plan to handle it.

He said Vineyard — which grew from just 139 residents in 2010 to 10,052 last year — has no UTA service but does have a planned stop for the FrontRunner train.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The development at the site of the old Geneva steel mill in the town of Vineyard continues to grow under the name of @Geneva as seen on Wed. May 18, 2016.

He said fast-growing Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain, with populations now of 31,393 and 35,616, respectively, have only one bus route — and their populations are expected to more than double in coming years.

Because of such concerns, the board also asked planners to take into account the needs of growing areas as they work on service plans.

Christensen said it may be a good time to take a fresh look at UTA bus routes in general. He noted that its old spoke-and-wheel design — with most Salt Lake County routes eventually leading into Salt Lake City — may not be wise now. He said more employment and entertainment centers are evolving outside the city, and service may need to better target them.

He also said he would prefer to see fewer routes that wind slowly through neighborhoods, replaced by frequent service along major roads and highways nearby.

UTA Planning Director Laura Hanson said if an upcoming experiment with “microtransit” succeeds, it may help people get between rapid routes and homes or final destinations. Like Uber or Lyft, microtransit will allow people to use smartphones to request shared van rides to transit stops or nearby destinations. The cost would be the same as bus fare and allow transfers.

Christensen said UTA may need to rethink its practice of ensuring that transit taxes raised in one county are spent only in that county, not elsewhere.

He said some long express or bus rapid transit routes that cross county lines benefit all by helping remove cars from freeways and reducing regional pollution — so perhaps ways should be found that allow a bit more freedom to use money to address regional concerns.