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Higher fares, fewer routes

UTA says redesign will help commuters, but disabled and low-income advocates cry foul

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Around 8:15 a.m., Grace Goff makes the trek from her apartment, crossing the street to the parking lot where she has arranged to meet her Paratransit bus.

Her walker, striped red and white to identify her as blind, is stacked high with books to return to the library and a treat to share with friends.

For almost 45 minutes, she waits under the door frame of a nearby apartment. It has snowed the night before, and this morning, there is a light drizzle of rain but, thankfully, no wind.

"I'm not supposed to stand in the heat or cold," said Goff, who has poor vision, respiratory problems and severe joint pain as a result of coming in contact with a toxic fungus when she was 16.

At 8:56 a.m., Goff pulls a cell phone from her pocket to call the Utah Transit Authority to say her bus is late. Two minutes later, the bus comes around the corner.

Goff depends on the bus, and she worries about a proposed fare increase and redesign of UTA's Salt Lake County bus system. She's one of hundreds of riders impacted by the changes. They live along the east bench, out west in Kearns and in the heart of Salt Lake City.

The redesign is the largest in UTA history and consolidates 98 bus routes into 80. Buses will be moved out of neighborhoods onto high-traffic roads and will run with more frequency. Fares for buses and TRAX light rail will increase 50 cents to $2 for an adult one-way ride by 2009.

With the redesign, Goff worries she will no longer have weekend bus service. UTA wants to move its weekend buses more than three-quarters of a mile from her home. Federal disability law says a bus company does not have to provide Paratransit service if regular buses don't run within three-quarters of a mile from a person's home or destination. UTA said it ignores the three-quarters rule on weekdays, but Goff may not have a bus on weekends.

As for the fare increases, disabled riders — many on fixed incomes — also will end up paying more each month. Instead of an unlimited trip pass for $69, UTA is proposing a 30-trip punch card for $44 and a 60-trip card for $76. The punch cards expire at the end of each month.

Riders say it will be hard to make the cards last through a month. Going to and from work counts as two trips. A trip to the doctor is two trips. The same with a visit to the grocery store or a friend's house.

"The people who need transit the very most are not being considered, because they're not profitable," said Goff.

Serving commuters

UTA general manger John Inglish says the changes are intended to capture more riders such as businessmen, college students or downtown residents who want a bus system that is speedy, reliable and easy to access.

But he admits the idea may not benefit some riders like Goff who depend on transit.

"There aren't that many of them," Inglish said. "The sense we have is that making it better for the markets we're focused on will make it better for them."

Of the 2,710 public comments that UTA received about the redesign, 65 percent criticized the plan, according to a UTA analysis. The comments show that people are both upset and confused about the impact of the changes.

The changes mean that Nikki Christensen, a 21-year-old University of Utah student with short brown hair and cat-eye glasses, will have to ride her bike to school or walk longer distances at night to catch a bus. She has created a blog at whereisuta.blogspot.com to talk about the changes.

"This is a huge impact on me," said Christensen. "I can't imagine how it will impact people who don't have options."

She worries about riding her bike on busy roads or walking longer distances at night. In 2004, she was hit by a car while riding her bike downtown. She broke her leg and wrist.

"Increasing fares and eliminating routes and trying to say it's beneficial to us is either crazy or disingenuous," she said. "It's the largest bus cut in UTA history."

UTA, however, says the redesign is not a "bus cut." Buses will run the same number of hours and miles, said Jerry Bensen, UTA chief performance officer.

The changes will save the agency money: The redesign budget shows a $627,136 annual savings over current operating costs. UTA said that money will be used to add bus service to areas where routes have been changed. Additions will be made once UTA has reviewed all public comments.

As protests and public outcry about the redesign have grown louder in recent weeks, the agency has revised its numbers of how many routes it is changing. When the redesign was announced in February, UTA said routes would be reduced from 117 to 54. A few weeks later, the agency said routes were being reduced from 98 to 54. Now UTA says the redesign is a change from 98 to 80 routes.

Agency spokesman Justin Jones said the previous numbers did not account for factors such as night routes and intercounty routes that are not changing.

Bill Tibbetts, director of the Anti-Hunger Action Committee, said the ever-changing numbers show that UTA is trying to "spin" the facts about the redesign.

"I know we live in an age of spin, where if you have the right public-relations campaign, you can change reality," said Tibbetts. "But how can you go to people who are losing all service on their street and tell them service isn't being eliminated?"

Designing change

For people like Ray Stephens, a 60-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, the changes appear like a loss in service. Stephens has poor eyesight because of diabetes and struggles to walk long distances. With the redesign, buses will no longer stop in front of his home on 100 South. They will instead run on 200 South, making it harder for him to get around.

In addition to his regular bus routes, Stephens said, the redesign will affect his route to the VA hospital in Salt Lake City. Buses now travel a loop inside the hospital complex, and veterans are dropped off near the hospital door.

Under the redesign, UTA will eliminate the hospital loop and drop off riders at a bus stop on Foothill Boulevard. Catching a bus from the VA hospital will require people to walk across Foothill Boulevard.

"I can understand them realigning the system, but the point of the system is that it serve the people, not the people serving the system," said Stephens.

In designing the route changes, UTA held meetings with several focus groups and hired a consultant to do a yearlong study of county demographics and attitudes toward transit. Ridership on routes was also reviewed, but UTA said that was not a key part of the process. No public hearings were held.

"Our directive was to erase all the lines on the map and build a bus system for Salt Lake County today — not Salt Lake County in 1970," said Jones. "Ridership was a final deciding factor in placing routes where they are currently proposed."

With the redesign, UTA is confident people will ride the bus more. Bus stops may be farther away, but service will be more frequent and route connections faster, said Inglish.

UTA says bus service in Salt Lake City's west-side communities will increase 40 percent. Downtown and Salt Lake County's west side will also see increases. Parts of the east side will lose service.

Reducing options?

Lurae Stuart, a senior program manager for the American Public Transportation Association, said transit agencies across the nation are changing how they run their bus systems in order to make riding easier and better serve population centers. This is done by cutting routes with low ridership or consolidating routes that overlap, she said.

With the redesign, UTA anticipates a 12 percent increase in ridership in three years. But there are gaps in the plan.

Cottonwood Heights is losing its only bus connection to TRAX in favor of more commuter buses. In Kearns, residents complain they will have to walk several blocks in the dark to get home from work. And hundreds of people who work at the International Center, west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, will no longer be served by a bus.

During a recent visit to the Salt Lake City office for the Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, several women complained the redesign would reduce their travel options. One woman said she may lose her job at the center because buses won't travel near her home in the southwest end of the county.

Inglish said he is aware of the concerns. Over the coming weeks, UTA will review public comment and decide how to change redesign plans. In mid-May, changes will be presented to the UTA Board of Trustees.

But some residents, including Christensen, want the agency to postpone the fare increases and redesign, and create a task force made up of riders to discuss ways to improve service.

"There are other ways to get people on the bus that doesn't involve cutting service and raising fares," Christensen said.

To view a copy of UTA's redesign plans, log on to rideuta.com. A public comment period about the fare increases ends on Wednesday. Public comment has already ended about the redesign, which is scheduled to be implemented Aug. 26.

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com