OREM — The Utah Transit Authority's new Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit system is set to begin operations on Monday, even though there's still plenty of work to be done, including putting the new UVX logo on the 25 buses in the fleet.
During a test run Friday with members of the media, UTA officials pointed out temporary bus stops along the 10.5-mile long route through Orem and Provo, including the campuses of Utah Valley University and BYU.
Just over half of the route is along designated center bus lanes in both directions, separated by double-white lines from traffic whizzing by on busy streets, including University Parkway and University Avenue.
For now, buses will have to cross over several lanes of traffic in some places to pick up and drop off passengers. When the 18 bus stops are completed, they'll each be equipped with a 42-inch screen showing how close the next bus is.
Mary DeLaMare-Schaefer, UTA regional general manager, said the $200 million project was never expected to be finished until spring of 2019, but a decision was made to run the buses when the new school year began.
"Everyone knew that was the deal when we went into it," she said.
She said the early start was the result of deals made with UVU and BYU announced late last year that call for each campus to pay $1 million annually over 10 years for free transit passes for students and faculty along with their spouses and dependents.
UTA will be able to also provide free fares on the new UVX line over the next three years for everyone, DeLaMare-Schaefer said, thanks to a $1.9 million Federal Highway Administration grant to mitigate congestion and improve air quality.
"I think free rides helps people want to try it out," she said, describing the extra-long articulated buses that seat 40 people and can hold up to 80 passengers overall as rolling advertisements for mass transit in Utah County.
The new bus rapid transit line had been expected to be priced at $2.50 each way. DeLaMare-Schaefer said she hopes to see Utah County residents jump on a bus to head to a shopping mall, restaurant, football game or other activity.
Whether the system stays free after three years will be up to local officials, she said.
The federal grant only allows free fares on UVX buses, which will display signs reading, "Ride Free." The UVU and BYU transit passes, however, provide free access to all buses, TRAX light rail and FrontRunner commuter trains.
The deal with UVU and BYU raised some concerns, including from a now-former UTA trustee, Brent Taylor, who said the per-pass cost to the campuses annually could be around $20, while a regular adult transit pass costs nearly $2,400 a year.
DeLaMare-Schaefer said the campuses are making transit friendly improvements that will boost ridership, citing as an example UVU moving a no-cost parking lot next to UTA's intermodal hub in Orem.
On Friday, the acres of smooth dirt where the lot will be located could be seen from the start of the bus rapid transit line in Orem, near the Orem Central FrontRunner station.
While UVX service is set to start Monday, DeLaMare-Schaefer said the grand opening will likely be in October. She said volunteers will be on hand as classes begin at UVU on Aug. 20 and at BYU on Sept. 4.
The system, which has been called TRAX on wheels, is intended to reduce the wait for buses from about 15 minutes to just six minutes during peak morning and evening travel times. Travel time will be longer during construction.