- Peter Holslin
- Eric Callison, UTA’s manager of service planning, maps out Salt Lake City’s transit system.
On the corner of 700 South and State Street, a metal post marking a UTA bus stop sticks out from the ground, standing alone like a stray antenna on the surface of Mars.
The pole stands next to an abandoned building. There is no shelter, no shade, no escape from the 96-degree heat. As a reporter stands in wait on a recent Tuesday afternoon, a stocky man with unkempt hair walks up and scans southward. Dozens of cars zoom by, spewing exhaust under the blinding sun. There's no bus coming on the horizon, so the man walks away.
Like many public transportation systems across the United States, Salt Lake's bus and light-rail network leaves much to the imagination. Even in the best cases, the routes operated by the Utah Transit Authority often seem governed by a googly-eyed calculus—everyday rides transforming into grueling treks as passengers walk lengthy distances to transit stops, endure long waits and end up stranded when services stop in less-populated areas or after rush-hour commutes.
But lately, it seems this system might be turning a corner.
With record population growth and rapid expansion expected across the state in coming years, officials across the region have been tackling transit conundrums with greater urgency. The UTA, recently overhauled after years of apparent mismanagement, has been dreaming up ideas to improve services and expand coverage. Meanwhile, candidates in the Salt Lake City mayor's race have advocated for better public transportation options as a way to offset rising housing costs and perpetual problems with air quality.
Indeed, the way forward isn't just about the minutiae of time schedules and route maps—it also means addressing fundamental questions about urban development and the environment.
"They should be going back to the legislature and they should be saying, 'Our air is terrible,'" Jim Dabakis, a current frontrunner among Salt Lake's eight mayoral candidates according to a recent poll conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics, says of the newly reformed UTA. "We've gotta do something about housing. And we've gotta do something dramatic about transportation. Those three issues all come together with UTA."
A couple miles away from the sun-stricken bus stop on State Street, Eric Callison sits in an air-conditioned office at the UTA's downtown Frontline Headquarters. On a whiteboard, he's drawn out a map of Salt Lake City. Black lines criss-cross on a grid, each labeled with colorful magic markers to denote city bus routes.
As the UTA's manager of service planning, Callison has been busy lately with deciding which of the region's bus routes get expanded, adjusted, or erased off the map entirely. Approximately 21.5 million people have ridden UTA transit so far this year, and he's well aware of the power he wields.
"It is a very difficult, emotionally charged decision at times," he tells City Weekly. "I like to say, 'Behind every number is a person.' We can say, 'Oh, well this route has 700 boardings a day.' Well, that's 700 people. If we're going to change that route, we're messing with their lives."
Thankfully, this time around, he's able to give more than take away.
On Sunday, Aug. 11, UTA will adjust and expand public transit service across the Wasatch Front. Salt Lake City's 2, 9 and 21 bus lines will be revamped with longer run times and greater frequency. The 9 will be extended past the Trax line out to Redwood Road, providing more coverage for westside neighborhoods that have long suffered from poor bus access. The agency is also introducing a new bus line, the 4, providing service from Poplar Grove, into downtown, through the University of Utah, all the way to Millcreek's Olympus Cove.
All of this is being done in coordination with Salt Lake City, which has set aside $5 million a year to help expand UTA services as part of the city's Funding Our Future initiative. There will be other adjustments as well, including bus routes being redirected away from the University of Utah Hospital to cut down on traffic congestion and extended services in Ogden, Lehi and Tooele counties.
"I have lots of hopes and dreams for how to improve the public transit system," Callison says. "We have a certain budget—we have to stick within that. We are very fortunate this time around that we've actually just gotten more money. Usually, if we want to make changes, it's, 'Take a little from here, put a little over here.' It's moving things around, because the budget's fixed."
Public transportation has been part of the Wasatch Front ever since 1872, when Mormon pioneers first started getting around Salt Lake with the help of mule-drawn streetcars. This wasn't exactly the speediest or most efficient system, but it laid the groundwork for what would gradually become a bustling network of electric trolleys. In 1923, Salt Lake was home to multiple competing streetcar companies, ferrying three million passengers a month along nearly 144 miles of track, according to BYU researcher J. Michael Hunter.
Alas, the streetcars started going off the rails as the automobile gained in popularity throughout the 1920s and '30s. By the 1940s, there was only one streetcar line left—and then the system was bought out by a Minnesota transit company backed by General Motors and fully shut down in 1946.
Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based consultant on public transportation who's now advising the UTA on ways to design its system, says the glory days of the electric street car reflect a different era in American history. Back then, trolleys moved incredibly slow by today's standards, but cities were also much smaller and people had to travel less to get to their jobs.
The advent of the car reshaped the urban landscape, Walker says, sending Americans further and further into the suburbs—and setting the stage for many of today's public-transit problems.
"What's happened is that we spent half a century on the assumption that everyone's going to drive cars everywhere, and it's caused us to make metro regions really, really huge," Walker says. "Now, of course, it is because of cars and because of the illusion of speed arising from car dependence that people have moved so far from their jobs, and that employers feel it appropriate to locate so far from their employees."
Over the years, transit authorities in Utah have struggled to get their priorities straight. Planners have made innovative moves, like introducing Trax lines in 1999, and these days, bus drivers certainly deserve credit for their generally friendly demeanor.
But UTA has also been the source of scandal. A state audit in 2014 slammed the agency for mismanaging contracts and pampering executives. Last year, Utah lawmakers gave the authority a drastic overhaul, passing a bill that slashed the number of board members from 16 to three, put caps on their annual salaries and added measures for state oversight.
Now, UTA officials appear to be plotting out long-term goals to better serve the public. Later this year, it will test out a "microtransit" program, offering an on-demand, fixed-rate service modeled on UberPool in remote parts of southern Salt Lake County. Officials have also planned days on which passengers can ride UTA services for free to test how it impacts ridership and greenhouse gas emissions.
Dabakis and other mayoral candidates have promoted the idea of waiving UTA fares entirely. The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier this year that the UTA experienced a 16% overall boost in ridership on two free-fare days it instituted in February and March. But in order for free fares to work, someone would have to pony up the cash to make up for the loss in fare revenues, which cover an estimated 20% of the authority's annual operating costs, according to UTA spokesman Carl Arky.
And it's clear that the challenges extend way beyond ticket price.
Dabakis, who in 2017 had aspirations to assume a "watchdog" position on the UTA board but was blocked by the Salt Lake City Council, says the system could bring in more riders by boosting bus frequency and working to bridge the "first mile/last mile" gap—i.e., the amount a transit rider has to walk, drive or use a scooter to get to a transit stop and to reach their final destination. These can make for intolerable distances especially in Salt Lake, built on a grid of extra-wide city blocks.
"We've gotta do two things—we've gotta increase the frequency, and we've gotta take care of that last mile," Dabakis says. "There are solutions, but they cost money. So where would we get this money?"
Sen. Luz Escamilla and City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall—who judging from the recent poll are coming up behind Dabakis in the mayor's race, taking second and third place, respectively—point to similar problems with the public transit system. Speaking with City Weekly, they both argue that transit riders need better amenities and more efficient service, in addition to affordable fares.
"Until we have made the system far more convenient and made the coverage better, it's premature for us to subsidize every resident using UTA," Mendenhall says. "We know it's not usable yet. We can get there."
Escamilla suggests thinking of what the average rider has to deal with, and then dreaming up improvements from there.
"If you're waiting in 100 degrees outside right now, and you have to wait 15 minutes with your baby—that's not going to work for me," she says.