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George Chapman: UTA pushes projects over service

A TRAX train moves through Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
A TRAX train moves through Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Over the last few years, complaints about Utah Transit Agency (UTA) service has significantly increased. In the process to get enough money for the TRAX line extensions, UTA had to cannibalize bus service. Salt Lake County bus service decreased 30 percent.

The result has been minimal (hourly) service at night with just a handful of bus lines. Weekend service also is minimal. For people who have to work downtown outside of regular hours, they have to drive personal vehicles or use a very expensive car-sharing app. When people want to access the many entertainment venues in downtown Salt Lake City and other cities in northern Utah, they have to drive because mass transit service is not available, conveniently, when shows end, if at all.

The problem goes back to who is UTA supposed to serve. Many municipalities have been using UTA to push for rail transit projects with the assumption that rail stations will increase property values and encourage development. Almost all trustees on the UTA Board are appointed by the mayors and councils of cities that want projects. Only one or two trustees consistently ride UTA on a regular basis. They are the ones who can confirm that service, outside of regular hours, is lacking. UTA says that UTA is supposed to serve the municipalities. But riders, taxpayers and residents want and deserve UTA to serve transit riders!

When municipalities push for projects like the $100 million downtown streetcar, that equates to 50 new or better bus routes. A bus route’s operation ranges from 1 million to 2 million per route per year. The streetcar operational cost is two times that.

If you ask voters and taxpayers whether they want a new rail line downtown or 50 new bus routes, they will say that they want better service and the new bus routes (especially on the west side, which lacks service even more than the east side). If taxpayers are asked how they would like to spend $100 million, they would say that they want better service. In other words, the UTA Board of Trustees is now set up to encourage projects over service.

Interestingly, it took two public votes for Salt Lake citizens to approve TRAX downtown. The first effort failed. Voters are not being allowed to now decide if they want to spend more money on projects. The Utah Transportation Plan has billions in rail projects that municipalities insist are desperately needed. New funding is supposed to have 40 percent go to projects and 6 percent go to service increases. Voters, transit riders and taxpayers are being left out of the decision-making.

Salt Lake City recently asked for a new representative on the Board of Trustees. Apparently the city’s appointed person, Keith Bartholomew, had questioned the $65 million airport TRAX line that Salt Lake City is insisting UTA pay for (the city has told the City Council that UTA will pay for it).

The push for projects is still alive and well on the UTA Board of Trustees. Service seems to be suffering, and UTA’s future plans deserve a fair discussion that requires transit rider and service proponents on the UTA Board of Trustees. Sen. Jim Dabakis is not a transit rider, and he should not be approved by the City Council. The UTA Board should reflect a balanced viewpoint and effectively represent transit riders. Mayor Jackie Biskupski should nominate a recognized transit rider proponent to the UTA Board.

On June 14, at the state Capitol, Senate Building Room 210, the Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force will be spending several hours taking public comments on the future of mass transit and transportation in Utah. Those who are interested in the future of mass transit in Utah should attend and provide comments.

George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City.