PROVO There were days when Matt Terry would drive the UTA Route No. 2 bus to Mapleton and no one would get on. The only thing he could hear on his bus was the song playing on repeat in his brain.
With the realignment of 15 Utah County routes made official at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday at the Mt. Timpanogos Transit Center in Orem Terry shouldn't have to worry about driving an empty bus any longer.
Hoping to curb a 10 percent decline in Utah County ridership over the past three years, the Utah County Transit Improvement Project was started to provide more efficient service to the most popular destinations, officials say.
That means some routes, like the Mapleton route Terry used to drive, have been eliminated. Services to Alpine and Highland have also been discontinued.
UTA officials hope the new plan will make bus routes shorter and more reliable for riders in the high-use areas of central Provo and Orem.
In a yearlong study of Utah County ridership, the UTA found most riders wanted quicker and more reliable service to popular locations such as Brigham Young University, Utah Valley State College, University Mall and the Provo Towne Centre shopping complex. By eliminating routes that are rarely used, UTA hopes to accomplish these goals.
There are now 15 Utah County routes nine local routes, five express routes and one commuter route. Buses will only travel through the main arterial route, in most cases State Street or Main Street, of Lehi, American Fork, Pleasant Grove, Springville, Spanish Fork and Payson.
"I see it as a system that maybe hasn't been working as good as it should and this is an attempt to make it better," said Utah County Commissioner Gary Herbert. "The UTA is going out of their way to serve the customers they have here."
Many residents who no longer receive service or receive less service disagree.
Spanish Fork residents will decide in the November general election if they want to keep the service and officials from Highland and Mapleton have said they don't want to tax residents for UTA buses that never come through town.
Spanish Fork contributes about $500,000 in taxes to UTA every year. Springville contributes about $350,000 and smaller cities contribute less.
No city has ever deannexed from UTA, and to do so could hurt a city when the need for mass transit arises, UTA officials say.
For this reason, the Springville City Council voted last week against a resolution that would have asked voters if the city should continue to participate in UTA. Council members said they didn't want to lose the service forever and recognized the need for the United Way paratransit bus service to the elderly and disabled that UTA provides.
Even in areas like Springville, where there is now only one route, the paratransit service will not be affected. By law, UTA must provide the paratransit service to handicapped or elderly people living within three-quarters of a mile of any regular route.
This law does not help the mentally handicapped who qualify for paratransit service but choose to use the UTA bus instead. Linda Brown, Springville, for example, has a 21-year-old mentally disabled daughter who has relied on UTA buses to get to work every day.
Brown walked four blocks to catch the bus each day; now she will have to walk more than a mile. Her mother says this is too far.
While the new plan may be inconvenient for some, it represents the needs of most Utah County residents, UTA officials say. In addition to year-long studies of ridership, the UTA hosted two weeks of public hearings and received about 600 written comments on the proposal.
For bus operators like Terry, realigning, eliminating and adding routes to fill up buses is a good idea.
"It was frustrating at times driving an empty bus because I felt like the company was paying me to drive a bus full of people," Terry said. "I wondered if I was being cost effective for the company."
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