Sunday, April 30, 2006

Big Push for Transit

Lots in the news in recent days about accelerating the expansion of rail transit along the Wasatch Front. The Deseret News ran a major series of stories on it today (see also here and here.) Much of this is part of an effort by transportation pundits to raise the awareness of the need to increase transportation investment if we are to keep our region viable. This means not only roads, but transit as well.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce is undertaking a substantial program to encourage increased investment in transportation, even calling for the raising of taxes to fund the TRAX expansion lines ahead of schedule. The Salt Lake County Council is moving in that direction as well, looking favorably toward putting the question of raising property taxes for TRAX expansion on the ballot this November.

While most of the recent action is taking place in Salt Lake County, there is also action in Davis and Weber Counties. The commuter rail line is currently under construction and due to be complete in 2008. The settlement of the Legacy Highway lawsuit late last year also included a provision that UDOT commit a couple of million dollars for feasibility and environmental studies for expansion of TRAX into south Davis County. This study, I understand, will get underway in earnest by fall of this year. Only Utah County, which has not yet committed for the additional one-quarter cent sales tax for transit as Salt Lake, Weber and Davis Counties did in 2000, is not seeing much action on rail transit (though there has been discussion about leasing the Union Pacific rail line to run a sort of commuter rail from Provo to Salt Lake when reconstruction of I-15 in Utah County begins in a few years.)

Is all this attention to expansion of rail transit worth it? Will it really help make our region a better place to live? One of the key items in Envision Utah's Quality Growth Strategy is expansion of transit. The idea is that making communities more open to walking and transit and lessening dependence on cars will improve quality of life.

Numerous studies show, however, that even substantial increases in transit capacity will do little to reduce traffic congestion. Anthony Downs, one of the most level-headed (in my opinion) writers on transportation policy, says that there is virtually nothing we can do that is acceptable to the public to reduce congestion substantially, even aggresively building additional transit. He does say that "improving and expanding the nation's public transit systems and upgrading their image are worthwhile goals that deserve significant effort and intensive promotion." Why?

If transit is not going to make much of a dent in regional mobility, what's the point?

In Davis County a few years ago, public officials undertook a concerted effort to prioritize our transporation needs. Legacy Highway came out number one, expansion of I-15 next, and expansion of transit third, with a number of other strategies following that. These were the big three, however. Why would we rank transit so high? Much had to to do with our recognition that once Legacy was built and I-15 expanded, there will be very little more we can do to add significantly to our road capacity because of land constraints (there just ain't gonna be any more room in the neck of the hourglass through Farmington/Centerville.) Transit will be needed to supplement that capacity. Also, transit is a good option to have available for people when they just plain don't want to, or can't, drive.

Look at most major metropolitan areas around the world that are vital and leaders in the world economy -- they virtually all have large transit systems. It's as Anthony Downs says, economic prosperity creates congestion because there is so much going on -- it's a sign of economic health. Transit is needed as a travel option in those regions. It's part of what we will need to do here in Zion if we are to become important players in the world economy, and keep up the quality of life for our residents, both present and future.


At 11:34 AM, Blogger Chuck Chappell said...

Makes sense that suburban and ex-urban growth patterns facilitated by convenient and easy access to the automobile cannot be economically serviced by urban transit. However, auto travel is now more expensive and less convenient today; guess what the future will bring! In some transportation corridors, integrating new transit service with highway service makes a lot of sense and we have proof in the Salt Lake Valley. By 2015, the trip from Salt Lake City to Sandy will increase by only 3 minutes, from 39 to 42 minutes. Not so in other corridors, if no new transportation funds arise. From SLC to Provo will increase by 30 minutes, 60 to 90 minutes; SLC to Ogden by 17 minutes, 55 to 72 minutes; SLC to South Jordan by 20 minutes, 40 to 60 minutes. (These are average, simulated travel times but provide good comparisons.) Why does SLC to Sandy look so good for 2015? Answer, the I-15 reconstruction and the north/south TRAX opening in the past five years! Is there a region-wide will to do it again in other congested corridors along the greater Wasatch Front?

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Matthew Whiting said...

Here's my two cents...
I believe that mass-transit is inherently safer, more accessable for the elderly that can no longer drive but want to get around, can be much more easily converted to electric, encourages walking which is better for health, and is much less subsidized than the personal automobile and the infrastructure provided for it. With that said, I haven't been on a bus more than twice since I moved to Utah over 8 years ago. Only been on TRAX once. It drives me crazy to see full size UTA buses driving around with 2 people on them, but I don't step up to fill another seat. I might be more willing, but my family might not. Driving my car is just not expensive enough to push me to transit, yet. (It pushed me to a scooter though)

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