Thanks to recent sales tax hikes, the Utah Transit Authority plans to spend nearly a half-billion dollars on operations next year as it proposed Wednesday a 7.4% budget increase.
That includes funding more ski bus service, an experimental “microtransit” system in southwestern Salt Lake County (a hybrid of ride hailing services and traditional transit), and continuing recently expanded service in Salt Lake County.
UTA also proposes a separate $190.5 million construction and maintenance budget that includes relocating its TRAX station at Salt Lake City International Airport, starting work on a bus rapid transit line in Ogden and double tracking more FrontRunner commuter rail to speed service.
To fund such facilities, the agency plans to borrow up to $75 million more by issuing bonds next week, and spending $48.6 million of it next year.
More than $1 of every $4 in UTA’s 2020 operating budget — 27.6%, to be exact — would go toward paying off its $2.1 billion debts, amassed mostly as a mortgage to accelerate construction in recent years of its TRAX and FrontRunner rail systems.
Debt service is the single-largest expenditure in its budget next year at $135.5 million. The next biggest expense, at $108.8 million, is for bus service.
Controversy over UTA’s debt — plus scandals over high executive wages, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers — led the Legislature last year to restructure the agency, including creating a new board appointed by the governor. Most of UTA’s past top executives have retired and been replaced over the past couple years.
For UTA’s $490.1 million proposed operating budget next year, 70.6% of the revenue would come from sales tax. Federal grants would provide about 13.8%. That leaves just 11.2% coming from passenger fares, which will remain the same.
Salt Lake and Utah counties imposed quarter-cent sales tax hikes last July 1 partially for transit, and 2020 will be the first full year of revenues from them. They are expected to bring in $28.1 million from Salt Lake County and $9.7 million from Utah County. Also, Salt Lake City provided an extra $4 million to fund extra bus service there, which is continuing.
UTA had already used that to expand service this year — including changing half of its bus routes in August, often to offer service that is more frequent, goes as late as midnight or operates more on weekends. That will continue and expand more next year.
Ski bus expansion
The UTA Board on Wednesday also approved an agreement with the Central Wasatch Commission to add $150,000 of extra ski bus service beginning this season in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons. The commission will provide $60,000 and UTA will add $90,000, and next year’s budget envisions continuing it.
The deal will increase the number of trips on Route 972 in Big Cottonwood Canyon to 79 a day, up from between 61 and 65 on various days now. UTA plans to do that with existing buses by eliminating service at the Bingham Junction TRAX stop to shorten the route and allow running more buses elsewhere.
It also plans to increase trips on Route 953 in Little Cottonwood Canyon to 35 a day, up from between 17 and 23 now on various days. Route 994 in that canyon will not add trips.
UTA is also planning perhaps a controversial step: eliminating bus stops at a crowded park and ride stop at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon, where buses sometimes become trapped for long periods by bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway.
Lorin Simpson, UTA general manager for Salt Lake County, said skipping that stop and asking bus users to park instead at a lot at 9400 South and 2000 East will make service faster and more reliable, and leave the canyon lot for carpooling.
UTA also plans to eliminate interior ski racks in buses to increase passenger capacity. Simpson said most riders already simply hold their skis.
The budget also includes $1.6 million next year for a “microtransit” project in southwestern Salt Lake County.
Like with Uber or Lyft, people will use a smartphone app (or may phone a number) to hail a van ride to a specific destination — and get an estimate of when it would pick them up and drop them off.
But like traditional bus service, the fare is a set amount no matter the distance traveled (current cash fare is $2.50 for a regular one-way trip or $1.25 for a senior). Transfers will also be allowed between microtransit and regular buses and trains. The UTA Board has approved promotional fares as low as $1 for use as needed in the project.
Microtransit will not offer private rides, but vans will pick up and drop off other people headed in the same direction (similar to the UberPool shared service, which currently is not offered in Utah but is in other areas).
The budget calls for UTA to spend $13 million next year to start building a new TRAX station at Salt Lake City International Airport. It is needed because the city is spending $3.6 billion to essentially build an entirely new airport, with the first phase scheduled to open next October.
UTA plans to extend the TRAX line to the new terminal — but must wait for it to open so that old terminals blocking the way can be demolished. While the construction of the track extension proceeds, TRAX passengers will be shuttled by bus from the current end of the line to the new terminal.
The new station will be at ground level adjacent to the new terminal. That saves about $50 million from an initial design that had called for an elevated track that would have delivered trains inside terminal facilities at the airport.
The budget includes $28.2 million to start work on a new 5.3-mile bus rapid transit line from downtown Ogden to Weber State University and McKay Dee Hospital. Plans call for 13 stations, 1.8 miles of exclusive bus lanes and a transit center on the university campus. Completion is scheduled for 2022.
UTA also plans to spend $40.9 million on construction of a new central garage and fueling facility in downtown Salt Lake City to replace old and undersized facilities there.
It also plans to spend $10 million to add 1.8 miles of double track for FrontRunner in Utah County needed to allow a new station in fast-growing Vineyard — and to provide more reliable and speedy service by allowing more places for trains to pass. The new station will be funded separately by the state.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. at UTA’s headquarters, 669 W. 200 South in Salt Lake City. Also the public may submit comments online to the agency at rideuta.com. UTA’s board expects to adopt a final budget in December.