The complaints recorded on the Deseret News Transportation Hotline cover a lot of subjects, but one question seems to take up a disproportionate amount of tape:

Why do Utah Transit Authority buses always run nearly empty and don't go where people want them to?Callers argue that if UTA can't fill up its buses and serve the public, it doesn't deserve any more tax revenue to build a light-rail system and expand bus service.

John Inglish, UTA's assistant general manager, is the first to agree the Wasatch Front doesn't have an ideal mass transit service. But he contends that what UTA does offer gets used.

"We are a long ways from being an effective transit system, but we are as efficient as we can get. We squeeze out as much for our dollar as anyone," Inglish said.

The empty buses people see are usually on the way to pick up a full load to bring back in the opposite direction, he said. In the mornings, empty buses can be seen heading out of town and full buses driving into town. And in late afternoon, it's just the opposite.

More buses will be seen in the morning and late afternoon hours because more buses are in service during those high-demand times of day. In the low-demand period between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., 40 percent of UTA's fleet is in the garage and pickups aren't quite as frequent.

Contrary to popular belief, Inglish said, UTA does listen to customers before determining where and when buses run. He cites annual public-opinion surveys and public meetings to get a feel for what the market demands (See box).

But changes and improvements in UTA's service won't come any faster than UTA can afford, Inglish said. "The only constraint we have is money. And when we put more money into it, more people will ride it."

UTA's hope is to increase its take of county sales taxes by a quarter cent to raise $225 million toward expanding the bus system and constructing a light-rail commuter train from Sandy to Salt Lake City. UTA would like to put the sales tax increase before the voters this year.

Until then, Inglish said, UTA will make do with its $40 million annual budget by shifting routes and service around the valley. The typical all-day route costs about $500,000 annually to operate.

In making those changes and determining bus schedules, public demand is only one factor considered by UTA planners. Two other elements that have to be included are equipment constraints and labor regulations.

Inglish said 20 percent of UTA's fleet is in the shop on a given day, limiting the number of coaches available to add or expand routes. Also, UTA must abide by contracts negotiated between the company and its drivers, who are restricted in the number of hours they can drive.

In making a schedule change, Inglish said, all three factors are entered into a computer that determines whether the proposed change requested by the public can occur.

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S.L. Valley transit concerns

Last fall the Utah Transit Authority held a series of public input meetings to come up with its "Transplan 2000" blueprint for future transit improvements. Here is a list of some of the service suggestions made at the meetings:

- Increase bus pickup intervals to every 10 minutes and make transfers more convenient.

- Speed up travel time and provide more express routes.

- Improve and expand service in the southwest and western Salt Lake Valley.

- Better east-west service along main routes across the valley.

- Establish transit hubs at shopping malls and other activity centers in the valley.

- Integrate UTA service with school bus service.

- Re-establish Sunday service - at least on a limited basis - and expand night service.

- Expand Flextrans service for disabled.

- Continue and improve program to tailor bus service for large employers.

- Offer bus passes with tickets to special events.

- Make bus stops convenient and safe.

- Provide park-and-ride lots where needed and publicize existing ones.