UTA unveils 5-year service plan — envisioning a ‘core route network’ with service every 15 minutes

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Pedestrians exit a UTA Utah Valley Express bus in downtown Provo on Sept. 11, 2020. UTA is unveiling a five-year service plan that includes creating a "core route network" with all-day service every 15 minutes.

After some reworking forced by the pandemic, the Utah Transit Authority is giving a first peek at its vision for what bus and rail service should look like over the next five years.

The agency unveiled to the UTA Board some highlights of its first five-year service plan, which the Utah Legislature required the agency to develop and update regularly when it restructured UTA in 2018 after a series of scandals.

The new plan includes developing a “core route network,” where service is so frequent and regular that passengers will not need to look at schedules. It foresees more all-day service, rather than morning and evening peaks service. It also outlines major service changes and projects by county.

But don’t expect any major changes next year because of COVID-19. UTA has already said it plans to keep service at 91% of its pre-pandemic levels.

“We are focusing in 2021 on stabilization of our system,” said UTA Planning Director Laura Hanson. “We’re waiting for our financial resources to stabilize, our labor resources to stabilize. So, we’re being very cautious. The worst thing possible would be to put service on the ground and then realize that we didn’t have the ability to keep it going.”

Rather than a list of specific steps that are coming, Hanson said the new plan “is really more of a vision. It’s a map of where we think we might be within five years. It’s not really a list of prescriptive changes. This is a guide of where we want to go.”

It comes after UTA reached out to residents over two years in what it called its Service Choices effort, which included 3,500 residents answering online questionnaires about how the agency should prioritize services. Officials were ready to release its initial draft when the pandemic hit, and then decided to rework it to reflect the changes that COVID-19 brought.

One major shift envisioned is creating a network of core routes.

“These are a series of routes that are frequent enough that you really don’t need a schedule,” Hanson said. “You know that if you’re on a core route, the bus or train will come within 15 minutes. It will run early in the morning, late at night, and seven days a week.”

Another major shift is creating more all-day service.

“We have seen a shift from traditional morning and afternoon commuter-peak hours to a steadier all-day demand for our services,” Hanson said. “That even heightened during the pandemic period.”

It also outlines some major changes envisioned in different counties.

In Salt Lake County, that includes:

• Improving service on the west side of the county, with new connections to Salt Lake City International Airport and the inland port via 3600 West, 5600 West and 3100 South.

• Adjusting local bus routes to prepare for the future bus rapid transit projects, including the Midvalley Connector bus rapid transit project in West Valley City, Taylorsville and Murray, and one to connect south Davis County with downtown Salt Lake City.

• Improve connections between Tooele and Salt Lake counties.

• Improve transit connections in the Rose Park and Glendale areas of Salt Lake City.

• Improve connections between FrontRunner to the University of Utah and Research Park.

• Continue and possibly expand UTA’s experimental on-demand “microtransit” service in southern Salt Lake County with vans that are a hybrid between Uber and traditional bus service. That service may also expand that into Tooele County.

In Utah County, the plan envisions:

• Opening a new FrontRunner station in Vineyard and adjusting local bus service to connect to it.

• Consider using microtransit or other innovations in west Provo and Thanksgiving Point to provide better coverage and replace some bus routes with few riders.

In Weber, Davis and Box Elder counties, the plan suggests:

• Finishing a new bus rapid transit system between downtown Ogden and Weber State University and building a new transit hub at WSU’s Dee Events Center.

• Adding 15-minute bus service on State Street between Farmington and Ogden.

• Considering microtransit or other innovations in north Weber County and south Davis County to provide better all-day coverage and replace routes with few riders.

• Continuing to acquire right-of-way in Box Elder County to possibly extend FrontRunner train service there.

Hanson said UTA officials plan to present the plan to the UTA Advisory Council of local mayors and other officials next week. With its permission, it would then seek public comment. The UTA Board plans to give final approval of a five-year plan next spring.