SALT LAKE CITY — Midway through a weeklong challenge to travel exclusively by public mass transit, Rep. Greg Hughes said he had gained insight into scheduling, multitasking and fashion.
The Draper Republican, who is also the volunteer chairman of the Utah Transit Authority Board, experienced firsthand the so-called "last mile" challenge of public transit when a dentist appointment in Murray took him off the proverbial beaten path.
"My leather-soled shoes might be the most uncomfortable shoes on the planet, which I didn’t know until I walked two miles round-trip to run to the dentist and back," Hughes said. "Comfortable shoes is something I didn’t appreciate before I started this, which I do now. So that’s a lesson learned."
But Hughes said relying on public transit to get from point A to point B has required more of him than just sartorial problem-solving.
He said he used public transit in the past to attend events, but intertwining bus and train routes into his daily work schedule required considerable advanced planning and the relocation of appointments to land closer to TRAX lines.
"The planning and coordinating of how you’re going to get around is the biggest lesson for me," he said. "It’s been good. It’s been a valuable experience."
Hughes began the seven-day experience on Tuesday after he and other members of the UTA board were challenged to spend an entire week riding public transit.
The challenge came during a heated public hearing on Aug. 27, when members of the UTA board were presented with a petition signed by more than 3,300 individuals asking for expanded service hours for bus and train service.
The hearing, which included several comments critical of the Utah Transit Authority's operations, followed the release of a damning audit of UTA showing numerous instances of questionable business practices by the agency, which is subsidized by taxpayer funds.
Christopher Stout, co-founder and president of the advocacy group Utah Transit Riders Union, said the seven-day challenge has been extended to several Utah officials and lawmakers.
"We just feel it's important that the people who are in control of the purse and in control of what can happen understand what the typical riders are going through," Stout said.
The petition delivered to UTA dealt with service schedules — particularly a desire for late-night and extended weekend hours. But, Stout said, that is just one of the many challenges riders face that has resulted in the transit system being underutilized.
He said there is a need for improved amenities and pointed to Hughes' two-mile walk in Murray as an example of areas where greater bus routes are needed.
"We believe that transit needs to be everywhere, every when, every time," Stout said. "We think the system as it stands now is just a mere shadow of what it can be and we’re going to do everything we can to make it the best possible system."
Hughes said he appreciates the feedback that board members receive from the public.
Last week's public hearing was productive, he said, in that several points that needed to be made were presented and will continue to be considered by officials.
"It was a tough meeting, but it was a good meeting," Hughes said. "I hope the public at least knows that we’re taking their comments very seriously."
He said the issue of extended service hours is "a tough nut to crack," as maintaining a fully functioning transit system during off-peak hours drives up the taxpayer cost per rider.
"We just have to pay the bills," he said. "It’s a good thing when one of the biggest frustrations is people want more of what they're getting. I think that’s a good sign."
One of the ideas currently under consideration, Hughes said, is a distance-based pricing model, which would allows riders to take short trips on TRAX without paying the full $2.50 charge for a one-way ticket.
He said the pricing model is currently being pilot tested, but studies of other transit systems show that a single ticket price can be a disincentive to ridership.
"There are some good things that are happening but certainly there’s room for improvement, and I think we take that very seriously," he said.
As to his own experience on UTA, Hughes said that despite the extra commute time, he appreciates the added productivity of being able to check and respond to emails while in transit.
In the future, he said he'll likely continue to use public transit on days when his schedule is centered at his office or the Legislature.
"There’s some clear advantages that I’m appreciating that I think I had to go through to really draw that conclusion," he said. "When the seven days have concluded, my transportation patterns will have changed permanently as a result."
Stout said he commends Hughes for readily accepting the challenge and hopes that his insights will prompt positive change on the UTA board.
"I hope that what he learns from this experience results in a better system and a different direction for UTA from what they have been taking."