Why No TRAX For Utah County?
From the Western Rail Passenger Review issue 03-05, March, 2003
Commentary by John Dornoff, InterRail Director.
Utah Transit Authority's TRAX light rail line has been a success since its opening in 1999 with its line from Downtown Salt Lake City to Sandy. With the addition of the University line in 2001, the success story has continued. UTA plans to extend TRAX to Draper on the border between Salt Lake and Utah counties. However, UTA and the planning agency for Utah County, the Mountainland Association of Governments is not looking to extend TRAX in Utah County, instead concentrating on limited Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and commuter rail to solve their transportation problems.
To first understand why BRT and Commuter Rail are being proposed in Utah County, you must first understand how the planning process works. While the UTA has planners to plan its basic routes and schedules, all long term planning is handled by the Mountainland Association of Governments in Utah County and the Wasatch Front Regional Council in Salt Lake County and to the north. While the Wasatch Front Regional Council has been on the forefront of advancing transit, the Mountainland Association is very conservative, continues to focus primarily on expanding highways, and puts transit usage behind. The recently issued long-term transportation plan issued by the organizations clearly shows it is primarily interested in pushing highways.
Next it is important to understand the existing UTA ridership patterns in Utah County. There are four primary patterns of transit ridership in Utah County: 1) Commuter trips in Salt Lake County 2) Intra-county trips within Utah County 3) Colleges and University traffic within the county and 4) Trips from Salt Lake County in Utah County. The commuter rail proposal will address item 1, the BRT proposal will address a portion of 2 and 3. Commuter Rail is planned to be peak hour service from Payson, Utah up to Salt Lake City. While it will answer a portion of number 1, it will not address the large number of commuters who travel into other areas of Salt Lake County especially the southern portion of the county.
UTA currently does a poor job of handling number 2. UTA is only handling a small portion of the intra county trips, largely due to a system still dependent of 40-foot busses that are not serving the growing areas of the county. Next year UTA is planning to put a tax increase on the ballot, but it is not clear how much of the tax increase will go into helping the UTA bus system in the county. In addition, one of the big problems in dealing with Utah County, is that a majority of the population is on a long corridor, and that existing bus service is the long time it takes to get from say the Provo area to the fast growing Lehi area. By far the biggest generator of traffic generated in the county is from Utah Valley State College and especially Brigham Young University. The proposed BRT along current UTA route 830 would serve this market. However, BRT will do little for a majority of the current riders. Most of the riders are within a mile of BYU along narrow two lane roads with no traffic signals. Since BRT's only advantage is when its in dedicated lanes and with traffic light preemption, clearly the whole BRT project is nothing but a way to fool people into thinking that they are getting a project that will compare with Light Rail.
Number 4 is the one that neither plan will address. Currently there is a large amount of travel to Utah County from Salt Lake County. While a good portion of the travel is students to the two four year institutions, there is also great potential for reverse commuting. Interstate 15 is tied up in both directions during rush hour, showing that the market is there for transportation in both directions.
A well-designed light rail line would service all of the current traffic patterns, and as seen with TRAX in Salt Lake County will greatly increase transit ridership in the area. UTA has experienced a 28% increase in transit ridership in the system since the opening of the first TRAX line in 1999. Since bus ridership has been flat (and falling with the lost of jobs in Weber County), all of the increase can be directly attributed to TRAX. The light rail line will follow the former Union Pacific rail line as an extension of the current Sandy TRAX service. This will allow it to follow existing right of way all the way to the city of Orem. Then the line should travel along University Parkway, and follow the proposed BRT route all the way to Provo. This would allow it to serve Utah Valley State College and the Mount Timpanogos transit center before heading into the heart of Provo. The only issue would be how to serve the major destination of BYU. While approaching from the north will be no problem, all of the streets south of BYU are smaller residential streets, most of them just two lanes. The best solution would be to work out an agreement with BYU to travel along the southern part of the campus, south of the ball fields and enter University Avenue from the southwest side of the campus.
While some may argue that light rail and commuter rail would compete against each other, the opposite is true. Light Rail would capture the local riders within the county and feed into the commuter rail line at two points in Utah County, and two more points in Salt Lake County. Instead of competitors, they would be part of an integral rail passenger service throughout the region. Then the bus system in the county could be realigned and finally increase service to the fast growing areas of the county that are now largely being ignored by the Utah Transit Authority. Since TRAX costs substantially less per passenger mile than the bus system, operating cost savings would be realized compared to the BRT plan.
A couple of positive developments have recently taken place; one is the start of a new traffic study to look at the traffic problems along the I-15 corridor in Utah County. After the governor's problems trying to get the Legacy highway built and having it halted by the court's, in this new traffic study, public transportation will be taken into consideration. This includes not only the commuter rail proposal but also an extension of the light rail line from the county border south. Some progress is being made. The second is the future of the Geneva Steel plant. At one time the major employer of the county, the facility is largely sitting empty now. However, a developer has come forth with a proposal to develop the land. As part of his proposal he is looking to have a light rail station along the former UP right of way proposed for the Utah County TRAX line. It is clear from the success of TRAX that extension of the line in Utah County should be on the forefront and the proposed BRT plan scrapped. Light rail has been a success even in Utah; it is time to continue the success.