November 5, 2013

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Up to Speed

A Look at the Utah Transit Authority

By Rachel Madison | Photos Courtesy of UTA

November 5, 2013


The Utah Transit Authority has been a staple along the Wasatch Front since March of 1970, providing public transportation in the form of buses, vans, commuter rail and light rail. But in recent years, UTA has been surrounded by controversy as Wasatch Front residents have watched fares rise. Many feel that UTA has fares that are too high, ridership that is too low and employees who get paid too much.

However, Michael Allegra, general manager of UTA, says UTA’s service compares in all aspects to many other transit authorities across the country. In addition, he says UTA’s No. 1 goal is operational excellence. He believes it shows in the variety of transportation methods UTA provides to riders. The authority’s services cover 1,600 square miles and it is equipped to serve about 80 percent of the state’s population.

Fares

UTA’s base fare is $2.50, which allows passengers between the ages of 6 and 64 to ride a local bus or TRAX one way. An additional cost is required on express and premium services, like FrontRunner.

The base fare represents about 22 percent of what it costs UTA to transport a person on average, Allegra says. “We only get about $1.10 to $1.15 per person because of the magnitude of all the [bulk pass purchase] programs,” he says. “Getting to 22 percent of our costs is a decent goal, but we would like to get it higher. However, we appreciate the sensitivity of rates. There are no plans right now to raise rates.”

Another factor in determining fares includes comparing UTA’s fares to its peers across the nation. Other transit systems UTA compares itself to includes Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, Portland and Dallas. “There’s a few higher than us, and a few lower than us,” Allegra says.

UTA’s base fare of $2.50 is higher than Denver and San Diego’s base fare, but is equal to Dallas, Sacramento and Portland’s base fare. UTA’s base fare is .50 cents cheaper than Las Vegas’ and Seattle’s base fares.

Allegra says the notion that UTA has some of the highest fares in the nation isn’t accurate. “It’s not true,” he says. “We’re right in the middle of the pack.”

Remi Barron, spokesperson for UTA, says comparing transit agency fares can be difficult as not all transit services are alike. Some agencies only offer bus service and others only offer rail service. Some offer a combination of services within a small service area while others offer a similar combination of services but have a much larger service area.

On average, UTA carries passengers 7.5 miles and they pay an average of .34 cents per mile. UTA passengers paying the $2.50 base fare have a lower cost per mile than passengers of other agencies, Barron says.

During his 30-year career in the transit sector, Allegra says he’s been a part of every type of fare policy known to the industry. “Where we are today is based on a history of 30 years of experimentation,” he says. “We’re using our peers as a baseline to what the right fares ought to be. It’s really a combination of art and science for what we charge for a fare.”

Funding

About 70 percent of UTA’s funding comes from sales tax contributions in the areas the authority serves, including Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele and Box Elder counties. Another 13 percent comes from federal funding, while 11 percent of funding comes from fares. The rest of the funding comes from investments and advertising.

“We work very hard at making sure the services we provide in these communities is an equitable amount of service proportionate to the sales tax contributions they give us,” Allegra says. “We go through an equity analysis each year and we’re very diligent in making sure the counties get the service [they pay for]. We’ve done a good job over the years in making sure our costs are relative to the services we provide.”

Ridership

Ridership is at its highest in the history of UTA, Allegra says. “We’ve been seeing significant increases every year, and our ridership has doubled in the last 10 years.” According to UTA’s 2012 Performance Report, ridership increased by 3.1 percent in 2012 from 2011. During 2012, there were more than 42.8 million boardings.

Allegra says like most businesses, UTA had to buckle down during the Great Recession and become more efficient with less.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to provide close to a 10 percent efficiency improvement in the last three years,” he says. “Some of that comes from reductions in the most inefficient services we provide. Those routes not carrying many people were reduced, which allowed us to become more efficient.”

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