Legislators spank UTA for languishing ridership and storm service delays

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A TRAX train arrives at the North Temple Bridge/Guadalupe TRAX station Dec. 22, 2017.

Some legislators sent a message Thursday that they are not yet happy with the Utah Transit Authority, even after they restructured the scandal-tainted agency.

A few verbally spanked UTA for stagnant ridership growth, recent service delays and proposals to extend expensive rail lines instead of focusing on buses.

“I’m disappointed,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, House vice chairman of the Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.

For example, he noted that while Utah’s population has been booming, UTA ridership has decreased over recent years — although last year it was essentially flat, with 44.24 million boardings compared to 44.22 million in 2018.

“We’re investing so much public money into UTA that to have it [ridership] go down … is disappointing,” Brammer said.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland.

New UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said transit ridership has decreased almost everywhere nationally, in part because low gasoline prices and a stronger economy allow more people to afford and drive personal cars.

UTA Board member Kent Millington added, “We actually are doing much better than almost everybody else.”

Among reasons for the recent halt in ridership declines are offering free fares on the Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit system with the help of a federal grant, UTA officials have said.

Brammer, R-Highland, also criticized the agency for what it acknowledges were extensive and long delays during snowstorms earlier this month.

“It is not as if snow in Utah and big snowstorms is not a foreseeable event. And I’m disappointed in the fact that the reliability of UTA was less than the reliability of a normal car on the road,” he said.

Gonot said UTA trains dealt this month during storms with a broken water main, cold temperatures, heavy snowfall, a power surge, crossing protection issues and numerous non-UTA related car accidents that blocked rail lines. She said executives looked at the cause of each delay and have developed plans to prevent repeats.

That includes plans to install more rail switch covers to prevent freezing and build-up of ice, resolving newly found issues with switch heaters and ordering better communication with customers about what is happening.

Millington said UTA also feels that during the delays, it did not measure up “to what we expected of ourselves. … We are addressing these issues. We do appreciate the opportunity to investigate ourselves.”

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, questioned why UTA seems to be pushing expansion of more rail lines, which have created $2 billion in debt, instead of focusing on buses as the agency had promised in recent years. UTA is studying a possible $1.2 billion TRAX expansion to the soon-to-be-redeveloped state prison site in Draper, and how and when to expand TRAX and streetcars elsewhere.

He said data show UTA trains are “carrying fewer people for less revenue,” and said, “The ultimate question is whether putting more money into trains is the right way to go versus buses.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Highland, on Feb. 1, 2018.

Gonot said, “I think you need a combination of both,” and “it’s a balance of providing a core rail network, but then continue to expand our bus service.”

Brammer said he is not blaming current leaders at UTA, most of whom came on board after the Legislature restructured that agency after controversy over high executive pay, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers and UTA cutting a deal to cooperate with federal investigators to avoid prosecution.

“I know that there have been extensive changes to UTA, so I don't I don't put this on the current on the current group,” Brammer said.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, who sponsored legislation that restructured UTA, including creating a new full-time, three-member board to oversee it, had high praise for its new leaders.

“I have seen significant improvements in all at facets of UTA with the new trustees coming in,” he said.

“One of the best things they’ve done is to hire Carolyn Gonot,” he added. “She is investigating everything. And I really think that people will have great confidence in what they’re doing in the future. And I think the service will continue to improve.”