Who would have guessed that Utah would be the worst at prioritizing train projects ahead of long-overdue freeways in the 50th anniversary year of the super-successful interstate freeway system and in the state that has the highest reliance on freeway travel in America?
The Wasatch Front Regional Council and county politicians gamed, then ignored, their flawed prioritization process. All ignore the effect of UTA's scandalous TRAX ridership claims on the multibillion-dollar transit-tax hike. Common-sense analysis of UTA's four Salt Lake Valley rail projects shows these rail extensions violate all rules of value, rationality and fairness to car-driving taxpayers. Politicians and UTA's board recite a "regional rail" mantra as they ignore key data from their own studies that show new rails have insignificant regional effects.
UTA and supporters want trains where buses are dismal failures or where there is no need due to local freeway abundance. They want more trains to and for downtown. Forget the critical freeway needs in Utah County and southwestern Salt Lake County.
Here are key data of regional effects and total long-term costs as estimated by UTA/WFRC experts.
West Valley TRAX: Another UTA embarrassment, it will cost $750 million and reduce traffic by 0 percent.
Airport TRAX: The Salt Lake International Airport is a featherweight "anchor" to that train. Why? Even though the airport is a great generator of car and van trips, it is a terrible generator of transit trips. Salt Lake's 1998 Salt Lake International Airport master plan transportation study revealed that 99.4 percent of airport patrons and 99 percent of employees avoided UTA buses.
Mid-Jordan TRAX: For $700 million, long term, it is projected to carry just 3,724 new transit riders, by FTA analysis. WFRC's long-range plan shows travel growing to 2.03 million trips daily in the southwest valley by 2030. TRAX would carry just one of every 536 daily trips.
Draper TRAX: Draper TRAX promises so little it puts the entire $2 billion, five-rail finance program in jeopardy. It will probably not meet the FTA cost-effectiveness hard cap, currently $23.99, and thus will not qualify for federal matching funds. This may put Salt Lake County on the hook to make up hundreds of millions of dollars. The underlying 346 FastBus route for this trophy train shows up in the legislative audit, Page 52, as the worst in Salt Lake County. This is a quicksand foundation for transportation.
Authoritative data for these trains show benefits are insignificant while total long-term costs are astronomical. Billions of dollars are better spent on critical freeway needs.
comments on this story
Amazingly, the tsunami of technology gains in cars and highway operations are producing massive improvements at little or no cost to taxpayers. This flood of great value is unique in all history.
It is time to pierce the groupthink, the religious trust in UTA and the criminal indifference to critical peer-reviewed data on these trains costing billions. We need a grand jury and an independent professional study commission to sort out this dangerous, multibillion-dollar mess.
Michael T. Packard, an electronic engineer and safety consultant, is a long-term student of transportation.