The Utah Transit Authority is studying how it will spend a windfall of new money should voters approve sales tax increases likely to be on the statewide ballot to fund improvements in transportation infrastructure. Just how the UTA plans to deploy a new revenue stream is perhaps the most critical component in whether the tax increases should or will be approved.
A recent study shows the amount of time commuters spend in Utah going to and from work is somewhat below the national average and has remained so for years. But it is likely to increase, perhaps sharply, as population continues to grow along the Wasatch Front. The only viable way to hedge against future rush-hour gridlock is to dramatically improve the frequency and availability of mass transit.
There will be an increasing need for a more efficient and expansive mass transit system and it will require significant public investment. It is good to see the UTA openly talking about its plans to assess how to spend the estimated $39 million in additional revenue should voters approve the sales tax proposals. Preliminarily, the agency says it would like to increase bus service by up to 20 percent in the next five years. It would double the number of buses on popular routes and increase service after 8 p.m.
The focus on more bus service is absolutely the right route for transit planners, especially if the goal is to reduce the need to build new expressways to serve commuters. Right now, only 2 to 3 percent of people older than 16 who commute to and from a workplace use mass transit, and their commute time is at least double that of people who use cars. While the average commute along the Wasatch Front is about 22 minutes by car, for bus and train riders, it’s more than 44 minutes in the Salt Lake metro area. In Ogden, it’s 52 minutes, and in Provo, more than an hour.
As long as that gap in commute times persists, people will not be lured to leave their automobiles in the garage. And buses will play an increasingly important role in reducing commuting times given that Trax and FrontRunner services are not in easy reach of a large proportion of commuters.
The Utah Legislature last year gave local leaders the opportunity to put a sales tax increase proposal on the ballot this November, and most cities and counties are working to see to it that voters will have a chance to decide on raising the sales tax by a quarter-cent to fund transportation improvements.
A strategic expansion of bus service would be money well spent, and the UTA deserves credit for focusing on that element of transit planning and for taking an early lead in an open discussion of what it would do with its share of the funds.
Public-opinion surveys have shown most people are willing to pay a higher tax, but it is critical that all transportation planners on state and local levels work to make sure voters are specifically aware of what will be done with the additional tax money they agree to hand over.