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How can UTA increase ridership? Run trains, buses more often, audit recommends

Apr 18, 2024, 10:11 AM

A Utah Transit Authority FrontRunner travels near Point of the Mountain in Bluffdale on Sept. 19, 2...

A Utah Transit Authority FrontRunner travels near Point of the Mountain in Bluffdale on Sept. 19, 2023. A legislative audit released Wednesday recommends the authority adopt an overall plan to increase frequency of service. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Ridership of the Utah Transit Authority has begun to rebound after a pandemic-related slump, but the agency could further increase the number of commuters it serves by improving on-time performance and adopting a comprehensive plan to boost service frequency, according to a legislative audit released Wednesday.

The report, which was requested by state lawmakers, also noted that a change in governance of the authority has shown improvement, but turnover in executive positions has hindered some necessary improvements.

The last such audit of UTA was completed in 2014, and Jesse Martinson told the Legislative Audit Subcommittee Wednesday that the authority has implemented nearly all of the previous recommendations and has “improved a great deal since that audit.”

Auditors dedicated one chapter of the latest report to recommending that UTA set “innovative goals” for the next decade of ridership, when growth in the Beehive State is expected to continue. They noted that the number of transit trips per capita had been steadily declining even before the COVID-19 pandemic tanked ridership in 2020.

Utah transit ridership is improving post-pandemic faster than a majority of other transit agencies in the country, the report notes, but auditors recommend further improvements to make transit more appealing to drivers in the state.

“The problem with transit is, it competes with a car. We’re a car culture here,” August Lehman, an audit supervisor, told the committee. “In order for transit to be competitive, they need to be competitive when it comes to how long it takes to do a trip.”

The report identifies three areas for improvement — speed, performance and frequency — and recommends the authority tackle each by reducing routine delays in transit, increasing on-time delivery and increasing the frequency with buses and trains visit stops.

As ridership has steadily increased since a 2020 low, the percentage of on-time performance has steadily decreased, falling below the benchmark of 90% in 2022 and 2023.

“Though an overall on-time performance rate of just over 87 percent is not disconcerting, routes that do not meet the 90 percent standard are not consistently brought back into compliance,” the report states.

Service interruptions on FrontRunner have also increased by more than double between 2021 and 2023.

When it comes to frequency of service, auditors said having buses or trains arrive at least every 15 minutes will likely increase ridership, because “riders do not need to plan around schedules; they can just ‘show up and go.'”

“UTA has been expanding the number of its high-frequency routes; however, there is no overarching goal or guiding principle in the agency’s plans to determine how many routes will be upgraded to high-frequency routes,” the report states. “Without an overall goal, frequency can be sacrificed for coverage goals.”

Not only does frequency reduce the wait times for transit riders, but it creates more connections, making it easier for riders to get around, according to auditors.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, thanked the auditors and noted that transit will play a big role as the state prepares to potentially host the Olympics again in 2034.

“We do have 10 years, but in that 10-year period of time — you’re right on — we need to prepare, and public transit is going to be a big part of that,” he said.

The agency responded to the report and agreed with the recommendations. In a response letter written last week, board of trustees Chairman Carlton J. Christensen and Executive Director Jay Fox said the agency adopted a long-term transit plan in March, which includes efforts to increase frequency of service.

They say the ongoing project to double-track FrontRunner would “double frequency on commuter rail, improve reliability, and will ultimately open up Sunday service if fully funded.”

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How can UTA increase ridership? Run trains, buses more often, audit recommends