George Chapman: UTA should focus on increasing service before projects

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The S-Line Sugar House Streetcar heads east on the new double-track rail line, Friday, April 5, 2019.

In the April 6 Tribune article about the double tracking of the Sugar House S-Line (“UTA celebrates completion of double track for Sugar House streetcar”), there were several statements that deserve more analysis.

The ridership of the S-Line is about 1,300 passengers a day, about 100 less than a year ago. The original UTA background on the S-Line projected 3,000 daily riders in 2014. When it opened it had 681 riders a day. Some proponents predicted up to 5,000 riders a day. Predictions now say it should have 2,200 riders a day by 2030. The UTA press announcement said that “The investment is estimated to attract approximately 1,000 additional daily passengers by 2030.”

The original double tracking proposal estimated that the $6 million cost would generate 10% more riders. When we complained about the millions needed for such a small increase in ridership, UTA changed the predicted increase to 20%. Now UTA is projecting over a 70% increase! The predictions appear to be questionable.

The cost could have been used to increase bus service, including later night and weekend service and could have resulted in more ridership. The 21st South bus now stops operating at 9:30 p.m., despite the fact that Sugar House is developing a reputation as an entertainment district. The $1.6 million annual operating cost of the S-Line could fund several bus route service expansions that would help restore the robust bus system that the last UTA audit recommended before starting new projects.

Several times in the past, UTA and several government leaders have claimed that the S-Line created all of the building in Sugar House. “ ‘The S-Line has been a catalyst for economic development, in a once ignored area along an abandoned freight train line,’ said Carlton Christensen, chairman of the UTA Board."

The first residential buildings utilized government funds to encourage development. The Vue at 2100 South and Highland received a $6.7 million loan and the mixed income Liberty Village utilized Utah tax credits.

I can make a pretty good argument that most of the development came about due to the many parks in the area, including the Parley’s Trail linear park that runs along the S-Line in Salt Lake City. Much of the development in the Sugar House area, I believe, has been because of the cachet of Sugar House, the La Jolla of Salt Lake City. That was due to the eclectic mix of artists, stores and amenities, along with a vigorous community activism, led by one of the most active community councils in the city (Sugar House Community Council).

The claim that the “S-Line helps attract much-needed affordable housing” is countered by the supergentrification of Sugar House that is causing long-time residents and eclectic stores to be priced out of the area. Residential rentals in the new buildings are about $2 a square foot. Studios start at $1,500 a month.

In 2017, a study in Los Angeles found that mass transit ridership had a minimal increase despite tens of billions in projects. The study found that people wanted the convenience and time savings of cars and the system also cut back on bus service to help pay for the projects. UTA seems determined to follow the misguided L.A. plans that people will ride rail if it is built.

UTA is starting a study to determine the best route for a Draper to Lehi TRAX line, despite FrontRunner and the big area of gravel pits that divide the counties. Instead of the promised bus service increase, UTA seems to be more interested in projects.

The idea that the S-Line is the start of a network of trolleys needs recognition that each line will require at least a hundred million of local taxpayer funds. Mass transit riders, in my opinion, want convenience but UTA bus service is 30% down from 15 years ago. Can we please restore a robust bus system as recommended by the last UTA audit before thinking about new rail lines or projects?

George Chapman

George Chapman is a former candidate for Salt Lake City mayor, a transit activist and writes a blog at georgechapman.net.

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