The Utah Transit Authority, despite big ticket items such as Airport Light Rail, Salt Lake to Provo heavy rail service, and the forthcoming Sugarhouse Rail Line and Draper TRAX extension, has lost much its luster and appeal as of late. A recent report in the Salt Lake Tribune confirmed suspicions the tax-payer supported agency has not expanded overall ridership and, by extension, is not doing all it can to serve the people of Utah.
On the surface, the news that ridership has held steady despite expanding services is puzzling. Improvements in transit mean improvements to access and improvements in access should mean more people using the system. So, where is the disconnect between what riders want and what UTA provides?
Rails to Nowhere
The current UTA TRAX and Frontrunner system are quite efficient at moving people around the Wasatch Front. The 35.5 mile TRAX system is ninth highest in the nation for daily boardings and twelfth highest for daily boardings per mile of track as of January 2013, placing the light rail system in the top third of all systems in the nation. Frontrunner too, comes in with a respectable daily ridership of 13,000 passengers a day, placing it thirteenth in the nation for ridership.
But all is not as it appears.
From January to April in 2012, 7.52 million people rode the bus, during that same time in 2013, only 6.89 million boarded – a net loss of roughly 630,000. Interestingly, the January to April numbers are up this year for Frontrunner trains, with nearly 620,500 new riders using the system compared to the same time last year. TRAX numbers (which do not include the recently opened Green Line expansion to the Airport) have held steady, up only 0.2 percent this year over last.
In April, Utah Political Capitol reported that bus ridership has largely been stable between 2000 and 2010. The 8.3 percent drop in ridership between 2012 and 2013 is shocking and most likely correlates to UTA’s decision to move individuals away from the bus system and on to the rail system, especially on longer trips.
One advantage of a bus over a train is that it can reach into communities along secondary roads, providing easier access to riders. Originally, riders could choose to take an express bus to and from their destination, perhaps with one transfer on a local bus. Now, thanks to shifts in focus, riders may have to take a local bus to a Frontrunner station, transfer to TRAX, and then transfer to a local bus system. This added time decreases the attractiveness of the system and stifles growth.
UTA must view TRAX and Frontrunner as a complement to the bus system, rather than buses as a complement to the rail system.
High Fares, Confusing Pricing, and Low Returns
Over the past three years, fares to ride UTA’s buses and trains have increased dramatically – making them some of the highest in the nation. During the high gas prices in 2008, UTA imposed a 25 cent gas surcharge on its base $2.00 fare, eventually making $2.25 the base rate in May, 2011. Eleven months later, an additional ten cents was added to the base $2.25 and, a year after that rates went up once again by 15 cents, bringing the base rate for a single, one way, bus or TRAX trip to $2.50 – well above the national average of $1.50 and $1.87, respectively.
This kerfuffle in pricing adds confusion to expense, alienating casual riders and enraging regulars—resulting in commuters relapsing back to auto travel or other options.
To add insult to injury, UTA does not benefit financially from the the shift to rail over buses. The higher initial construction costs, combined with higher overhead, means taxpayers are forced to subsidize nearly twice as much per rider. On average, taxpayers are paying $4.25 per bus rider, and $8.47 per rail rider.
Raising fares causes those who choose to use the UTA’s system to consider other options, and hurt the most vulnerable who have no alternative to mass transit.
High gas prices are a reality, but UTA has little excuse for such expensive fares when considering our low gas prices relative to the rest of the nation. Reduced fares and consistent pricing would bring back riders and attract new ones.
Top-heavy and out of touch
As we reported in April, UTA is an extremely top-heavy organization. Numbers have been updated since our report in April, and Utah’s Right to Know, an online database of public employee salaries, informs us that CEO John Inglish enjoyed a salary of $365,750 in 2012. He was followed closely by Michael Allegra, UTA’s General Manager, who in 2012 received a pay raise of $13,000, bumping his annual salary to $332,600.
77 of UTA’s highest wage earners are over $100,000 a year (up from 74 in 2011,) and the top 100 wage cost UTA, and by extension the taxpayers, more than $13.4 Million last year (up $400,000 from 2011). Meanwhile, one posting on UTA’s website for a full time bus driver shows drivers earning $27,000 a year.
Of course, money doesn’t tell us if a person is or is not connected to what is happening in the front lines of the organization. However, it seems doubtful that UTA’s top executives use the system they run on a regular basis. There appears to be little concern for the removal or modification of bus routes despite objections from the public, while some of the highest fares in the country show no signs of dropping. Front-line employees, who are the true face of UTA, appear to see little benefit in their pocketbooks from the millions of taxpayer dollars that are pumped into the system through ongoing and one-time funds.
It also appears administrators are more concerned about creating projects to get money rather than getting money to create projects. A recent legislative audit of UTA revealed an expectation that debt payments “will consume a larger portion of sales tax revenues and impose a financial strain on UTA.” In the same report, analysts say UTA’s revenue projections are “optimistic” and that UTA may be forced to cut service if expenses are too high or revenues too low. Adding to this, state auditors feel that UTA “[leaves] little margin for error in revenue and cost projections or to pay for additional expansions.” In short, the leaders have burdened UTA with debt, may have painted far too rosy a picture, and have left little in their savings account to cushion blows.
The Long View – Is This A Blip?
UTA was quick to publish its own report after the Tribune article. In the report, UTA says that ridership is the highest it has ever been, increasing by 3 percent in 2012, with an all-time high of nearly 43 Million boardings and claimed ridership is “steady” in 2013 despite a national trend of reduced ridership. We have no reason to doubt these numbers, but they ignore the fact that more expensive rail service has a demonstrable negative effect on bus service. At best, bus route changes have shifted people on to trains—a more expensive option that, when paired with reduced bus routes, results in more expensive, less useful, service.
Higher fares with steady or slightly lower ridership have translated to higher revenues, but at what cost? Rail has been needed across the Salt Lake valley for years, however it appears UTA overreached in its expansion. It is too late to roll back the clock, but as the economy improves (and sales tax, the major funding source for UTA, increases) it would behoove UTA to reduce fares to increase riders.
Ultimately, it is not that UTA is declining, but it does appear it is stagnant and on the verge of floundering. Changes that emphasize bus ridership while complimenting rail ridership, along with reduced fares, would go a long way towards increasing both ridership and revenue. A reevaluation of project creation and funding may be in order, as well as the salaries of decision makers versus the front line, who’s smiling (or frowning) faces are what people perceive when the board that bus or train for the first time.