UTA’s Bus Rapid Transit proposal is an expensive, unnecessary boondoggle

Here we are at the start of summer, and the hottest topic in Utah County is whether or not we should run a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line from the Orem FrontRunner station, down University Parkway, around BYU, and down University Avenue to the Provo FrontRunner station.

The more that I look at the topic, the more I doubt the benefits. Here are three reasons that we should stop and think about BRT before committing taxpayer dollars (from Utah or from the federal government) to this project.

UTA has wildly optimistic boarding numbers for the route.

The current UTA projections for Provo-Orem BRT have a daily ridership of at least 12,000. That is up from the current ridership along the route of 3,000 per day. There are some reasons to think that ridership will go up because of more frequent service and a reduction in stops (from 50 to just 18), but to assume that it will go up 400% bears another look at the numbers. UTA has already created a BRT line along 3500 South in West Valley called 35MAX. Before BRT, this bus route had 3200 riders. After BRT, this route had…3200 riders.  This is despite 3 years of growth on the west side of Salt Lake County.

Additionally, a fourfold increase in ridership isn’t borne out by any existing BRT implementation. The best performing BRT lines have increased ridership 100% in Boston, Houston, and Vancouver. The worst performing lines in Cleveland have only increased ridership by 13%. For UTA to assume that this is going to be an outlier is ridiculous, especially considering prior UTA rollouts.

UTA, Utah County, and other local entities are blinded by the federal matching funds

This project has been allocated $75 million in funds from the federal government. “If we don’t make the line, we can’t use it,” is the common and accurate refrain from many who support BRT. While that is true, we can certainly improve existing transit service along the corridor and throughout the county more effectively by letting the funds go.

According to UTA documents, the local contribution for Provo-Orem MAX is $165 million. That’s $125 million for construction of the line and $40 million to construct 2 intermodal hubs at the Provo and Orem FrontRunner stations. A more reasonable request would be to see if Utah County’s traffic would use a BRT line by increasing service along the existing route to BRT standards (every 10 minutes at off-peak hours, every 5 minutes at peak hours) and creating an express route that stops at the 18 proposed BRT station locations. This could be done with additional busses and a very small capital outlay instead of the large outlay that is required for building dedicated lanes, new bridges, and mid-street stations.

If ridership does increase to levels that would support this (keeping in mind that 12,000 daily boardings is more than double the next closest bus line and would make up nearly 20% of all UTA bus boardings), then let’s move forward with BRT.

UTA has become an infrastructure agency, not a transit agency

Looking at the latest Utah Legislative Audit for UTA, UTA has a laundry list of capital expense projects over the next 25 years that totals nearly $12 billion dollars. This is above and beyond the existing cost of enhancing bus lines, paying salaries, and general upkeep costs.

It also includes lines that don’t make sense, like $2.5 billion for TRAX service from Draper to Orem (compared to just under $500 million for FrontRunner along the same corridor). What is the need for TRAX service that essentially duplicates the existing FrontRunner line? Wouldn’t those dollars be better spent by increasing service along the existing corridor, building additional stations as needed, adding an express level of train with fewer stops, and rerouting bus service to complement FrontRunner? You can do a lot of service improvements for $2.5 billion.

Projects like these seem to be symptomatic of an agency that is more interested in building infrastructure and being seen than one that is facing the customer and responding to their needs, wants, and desires. Instead of working to building train and BRT lines, UTA should focus on how it can more effectively use tax dollars and better serve current and future riders.


 

Originally posted at Politics Forty Five.


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