Salt Lake City seeks major transit improvements, but money could be a roadblock

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City is proposing major improvements to transit, but the city council is unsure how to fund them. A UTA TRAX train climbs out of downtown Salt Lake City as it heads to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah Monday June 24, 2013. The Salt Lake Chamber and its Utah Transportation Coalition has released a study on the impact of investing in UtahÕs transportation system.

But money is a big hurdle. The plan would cost at least an extra $7.7 million a year in operating costs alone, not to mention money needed to improve facilities.

The city council and the Utah Transit Authority are trying to figure out how to fund it. And they are debating whether it is wiser to phase it in over time — with some low-cost small successes to build support for bigger steps later — or to take bold, expensive moves to implement much of an enhanced system quickly.

City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said it’s a chicken-and-egg question of whether the city first needs more transit riders to justify expanding its system, or it needs a better system to attract riders.

She argued the system “needs a full set of legs to walk,” and the city should try to take big attention-grabbing steps quickly to build ridership. The comments came during a 2½-hour discussion by the council on the proposed master plan this week.

Other Access to Transit Solutions ………………………………………………..4-8

UTA President Jerry Benson (center) discusses a transit master plan with the Salt Lake City Council on Aug. 8, 2017.

But each long, new bus line with service every 15 minutes all day costs about $1 million a year to operate, Benson said. And the master plan envisions several such lines on the city’s grid system of streets, spaced so that stops for rapid-routes would be available within two blocks of 73 percent residents when fully implemented.

The master plan suggests, for example, starting by creating a frequent-transit corridor on 200 South between downtown and the University of Utah for bus — and potentially for future bus rapid transit or streetcar service. Benson warned that could reduce service elsewhere, unless additional money is found.

While officials are discussing how to raise money for the plan, increasing fares appears not to be an option under consideration. The plan recommends seeking ways to decrease fares, noting the standard $2.50 one-way pass “is high for many Salt Lake City families” and reduces transit’s competitiveness.

Officials said that was ordered by the mayor, and said the plan takes a more neutral approach on whether buses or trains should be used on frequent-transit routes. Kitchen and other council members said they want to hear more from Biskupski about reasons for that move before approving the plan.

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