The solution to Utah’s growth challenges
By Michael Allegra
When I look to the future for the Utah Transit Authority I see more bus rapid transit. UTA opened its first BRT line in July 2008. The 10-mile line is the first of a number of planned BRT routes that will help our transit system meet the
demands of one of the fastest growing populations in the nation.
The State of Utah is home to nearly three million people. While that number may seem small compared to many states, 80 percent of our population lives in a string of narrow valleys bordered by the Wasatch Mountains to the east and the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake and more mountains to the west. Concentrated growth within these natural confines has made this area —known as the Wasatch Front — one of the most urbanized in the nation. With limited room to expand, more and more people are recognizing that access to good mass transportation is critical to our future quality of life.
These factors have helped UTA gain widespread support as we have embarked on one of the fastest growth periods in our history. In spite of the recession, UTA has continued to expand both the amount and type of services we offer, with strong grown in ridership.
UTA started as a bus company in 1970, but has since become a truly multi-modal transportation provider, carrying more than 41 million riders per year. While U.S. transit ridership increased by approximately 28 percent from 1996 to 2010, UTA’s ridership increased by 60 percent over the same period. Today, we operate more than 600 buses and 400 vanpools. We are also nearing completion of a $2.3 billion rail expansion that will more grow our system to 48 miles of light rail and 90 miles of commuter rail. By 2015, 75 percent of the population of our service area will be within three miles of a major transit stop.
But this isn’t enough. Our goal at UTA is to have 90 percent of the population within one mile of a major transit stop by 2030. That’s a lofty goal, especially given the challenges of a slowed economy.
One of the ways we will get there is with more bus rapid transit. Our passenger rail network is comparable to the Interstate system — high frequency, high capacity lines that can move people quickly around the region. Our local bus service functions like neighborhood or collector streets. What we need to do next is fill in the gaps and create a true equivalent to arterial roads that can more efficiently deliver our riders from the “collectors” to the “freeways.” Only then will we become truly competitive with the automobile.
Bus rapid transit is one of the best solutions to help us accomplish this. Often described as light rail on rubber tires, BRT moves people through a busy, congested corridor much more rapidly than a regular bus route.
UTA’s first BRT line, the MAX, travels along 3500 South, one of the busiest corridors in Utah’s second largest city, West Valley City. The 10-mile line, which initially featured only limited stops, traffic signal priority, and fare payment before boarding, added more than a mile of dedicated travel lanes in 2010, with more planned in the near future. Improvements in travel time, reliability, and quality of service have resulted in a doubling of ridership along this corridor since opening.
While funding continues to be an obstacle, UTA is in the advanced planning stages for the following new BRT routes:
5600 West BRT will eventually span 25 miles along the west side of the Salt Lake Valley from the Salt Lake International Airport in the north to the City of Bluffdale in the south. It will be the first major north-south transit arterial on the west side. It is designed to complete a multi-modal system that includes a new highway, the Mountain View Corridor.
Southwest Salt Lake County BRT will connect Bluffdale and the 5600 West BRT line with commuter rail to the east and TRAX light rail to the north.
Provo-Orem BRT will connect commuter rail stations in the cities of Provo and Orem with the area’s two major universities, shopping centers, and Provo’s core downtown.
In the long range plan UTA and the local metropolitan planning organizations show more than 500 miles of BRT routes criss-crossing the Wasatch Front. By making transit convenient, easy, and affordable, they will play a critical role in addressing the challenges of a growing population and ensuring our future quality of life. BR
Michael Allegra joined Utah Transit Authority in 1979 and was appointed general manager in April 2010. He can be reached at MAllegra@rideuta.com.