The Utah Transit Authority ranks 54th out of 137 metropolitan transit agencies in cost-effective performance, according to a study released this week by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

UTA ranked 55th a year ago, its lowest ranking in the 10 years UNCC's Center for Interdisciplinary Transportation Studies has conducted the survey of the nation's largest transit providers.Center Director David T. Hartgen and undergraduate analyst Martin Kinnamon used federal statistics from 1997, the latest year for which data is available, and compared the frequency and extent of service, operating costs, passenger fares, taxpayer subsidies and ridership rates of the country's largest urban transit agencies.

UTA performed above the national average in five categories and below average in the other seven.

Hartgen said UTA has been consistent over the years in operating one of the more efficient transit companies in the nation.

"Salt Lake is basically flat in ridership but is trying to turn the corner and become a significant part of the urban fabric," he said.

UTA's overall ranking has fluctuated from 1988 to 1997 but not drastically. For the first three years it was ranked 44th, 43rd and 30th, respectively. But during those years, the study included only the 102 largest transit agencies in the country.

UTA enjoyed its best overall ranking from UNCC (22nd) in the 1992 statistical year when its bus fare was just 65 cents, then dropped to 31st the following year. As the study expanded to encompass 135 agencies, UTA's numerical ranking slipped to 48th, 44th and 55th. The study added two more agencies for its latest report.

Hartgen noted that the UNCC profiles are based solely on information transit companies submit to the federal government.

"This is a study your mom would ask for," he said. "We look only at the bottom line.

"My study doesn't really get at policy questions or what you want to do with your system. . . . We don't ask why they operate the way they do, how they do their figures or their geography or the problems or the mountains or the hot weather or the ski-bowl runs or any of that junk. They're smart enough to know their market and match their service to feed it."

Because of that, and because there are inconsistencies in the data used to compile the report each year, UTA officials say the UNCC ranking doesn't hold much weight for them.

"FTA (the Federal Transit Administration) has a 40-page book with all the shortcomings of that data he uses and how to be careful in using it and not only what it says but what it doesn't say, so you have to be careful," said UTA economist Richard Hodges. "There are hundreds of transit agencies across the country that provide this information, and they do it with varying levels of skill and expertise and sometimes varying accounting rules."

UTA's highest ranking in the 12 categories was in operating expenses per vehicle mile. UTA's $3.49 per mile was 25th in the country. Mobile, Ala., was first at $2.27 per mile. In contrast, it costs Sacramento (116th in the category) $6.15 per mile of operation.

"I think that says we're putting a lot of value out on the street, and I think that is where the taxpayers should see it," Hodges said. "We put a lot of service out on the street given the size of our agency and funding."

One category penalizes a transit agency if it has much distance between its stops. Stopping every block is preferable, Hartgen said.

But that kind of evaluation hurts UTA, which offers express service into Salt Lake City from Ogden, Provo and other cities.

"Those express trips tend to downgrade our performance in this kind of analysis, but I don't think anybody would criticize us for having that kind of service," Hodges said.

Hartgen said UTA can expect its ranking to dip in the future when 2000 and 2001 statistics are considered. The start-up of a light-rail system initially hurts the cost-effective performance of a system, although that tends to balance out over time, he said.

Three Western cities with light-rail mass transit now rank just ahead of UTA -- Los Angeles (46th), Portland (48th) and Sacramento (49th).

UTA ranks 30th in size, based on ridership. Its overall ranking is lower than three other similar-size agencies (Long Beach. Calif., sixth; Cincinnati, 17th; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 27th) but much higher than one other (Buffalo, N.Y., 105th).

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Additional Information

UNCC transit study

(Based on 1997 Federal Statistics)

VARIABLE UTA NATIONAL

RANK

RESOURCES

1. Annual total revenue base per population $43.04 67th

2. Fare revenue per unlinked passenger trip $ 0.50 33rd

3. Non-fare revenue as a percentage of total revenue$81.05 102nd

4. Population served per vehicle in maximum service 2,075 35th

5. Service area square miles per vehicles maximum 1,920 97th

RESULTS

6. Operating expense per vehicle revenue hour $66.71 84th

7. Operating expense per vehicle revenue mile $ 3.49 25th

8. Operating expense per unlinked passenger trip $ 2.45 89th

9. Operating expense per passenger mile $ 0.58 75th

10. Population base per 1,000 unlinked passenger trips 60.9 87th

11. Vehicle revenue miles per unlinked passenger trip 0.83 104th

12. Vehicle revenue minutes per unlinked passenger trip 2.59 74th

Overall rank 54th

Service Data

Service area/square miles 1,400

Service area population 1.51 million

Max no. vehicles in service 729

Annual ridership 24.9 million

TRANS