Operating a mass-transit system never has been particularly easy, but it's probably going to get a lot harder real soon. When Congress settled on nearly $1 trillion in budget cuts last week, virtually all of that came from discretionary spending, and few things are more discretionary than transit and highways.
That makes the inauguration of two new TRAX lines, which officially opened for business Sunday, all the more remarkable, as will be the opening of a line to the Salt Lake International Airport in 2013. The two lines — one to West Valley City and the other to the Daybreak development in South Jordan, were built with a combination of local and federal money. But the airport line is being built entirely with local funds, as will be an extension of the heavier FrontRunner line to Provo, scheduled to open in 2014.
Taken together, these new lines cover much of the Salt Lake Valley and combine to make one of the most impressive mass-transit systems in the country, and especially for a metro area of its size.
It may be hard today to remember the skepticism that dogged light rail as it was under construction in the 1990s. Some people believed it would be an ineffective mode of transportation that would attract few riders. Some predicted it would lead to several deaths as people walked across tracks to get to platforms or as cars smashed into trains at intersections. While a very few people have died, including some obviously committing suicide, accidents have been few and ridership has been steady. The most important measure of the success of that initial line, however, is in how it changed attitudes. Whereas before, people were reluctant to publicly support TRAX, soon after it opened, cities on the west side of the valley began clamoring for lines of their own.
The proof of this support came in 2006 when voters approved a quarter cent increase in sales taxes to fund the new lines.
Despite all this, the Utah Transit Authority has some obstacles to hurdle. One is the economic slowdown, accompanied by volatile gas prices, which affect operating costs. Fares have steadily increased and will continue to do so. A one-way ticket is scheduled to cost $2.50 by April 2013. The biggest looming obstacle, however, is federal support. Washington still owes money on its commitment to the Mid-Jordan TRAX line and the FrontRunner line to Ogden. Money for the federal share of a proposed line extension to Draper was included in President Barack Obama's budget, unveiled in February, but that budget never received any serious consideration by Congress. In addition, the federal government annually provides about $45 million to $50 million to help with ongoing operating and maintenance costs.
UTA officials say they have positioned themselves well to weather the worst possible storms. In addition, UTA has built a reputation as an organization that builds projects on time and within budget. It is one of only three transit companies to be recommended for full funding by transportation officials (the other two are San Jose, Calif., and Portland, Ore.).
The irony is that in tough times, people need to rely on mass transit more than ever, even as money dries up. For people along the Wasatch Front, this week's expansion offers reason to hope that rails and busses will be a permanent and effective part of metro living in Utah.