Thursday, October 09, 2008

Does Eagle Mountain Need UTA?

Eagle Mountain is about 45 miles from Salt Lake City. It is very much a bedroom community, with most people living in EM and commuting to work in either SLC or the Provo area to the southeast. It is such a new area that roads are often overcrowded, as supply has not kept up with demand.

So in comes the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) to provide express bus services to Eagle Mountain and its neighbor, Saratoga Springs. It will cost an additional quarter-cent in sales tax as well as a $200,000 a year federal grant for the first three years of the new route. After that 3 year period is up, UTA says FrontRunner will be at Thanksgiving Point, "boosting the service". At that point, the route would likely change from going to Salt Lake to just going to the FrontRunner stop.

UTA claims that the bus service would get 25% of commuter traffic, reducing congestion. Lehi, which has seen its city streets explode with traffic as EM and SS grew, would see a 15% drop in traffic, according to the UTA. However, some have expressed deep skepticism in those numbers, citing historical data showing traffic capture of only 1-2%. The heavy commuting nature of Eagle Mountain would likely mean higher commuter-transit usage than other areas, but wouldn't push the numbers quite that significantly.

Cost for this bus line includes:

-$600,000 in federal money
-sales tax money, which the city estimates would have been $10,000 in'07-'08
-the regular $4 per ride, $160 a month bus fare.

Once the two cities approve the bus lines and are annexed into the UTA taxing district, they are guaranteed to pay the tax, but are not guaranteed the bus service. That is up to the UTA commissioners to decide, though it's very unlikely that the service would be removed.

My question is, is UTA necessary? Currently it costs me $160 a month to drive to work in Salt Lake City, and it takes me about an hour. With my carpool partner, the cost is cut in half to $80 a month, and driving in the carpool lane saves time. Now, that doesn't include the cost of buying or maintaining the car. But I would own it even if I didn't commute to work. Maintenance costs obviously are increased because of the increased mileage, but I do it myself and it isn't substantial. With even one more carpool partner, the effective maintenance costs would be decreased further.

Is there a more targeted, more efficient way to provide for mass transit than UTA? I know and understand the benefits of mass transit. What I don't understand is how two passengers in a vehicle costs less than a bus full of people. Also, in addition to my own monthly fare cost, plus the increased sales tax, why must people in Arkansas or South Dakota foot the $600,000 bill to subsidize my commute?

Eagle Mountain residents will vote on the issue in November, and the question I'd like answered by then is, is there an alternative to UTA-directed mass transit?


Sources used:
http://www.deseretnews.com/article/1,5143,700264432,00.html
http://ssutah.blogspot.com/2008/08/express-bus-plan-short-on-time.html
http://www.davidlifferth.com/site/content_info.php?content_id=2016
http://www.davidlifferth.com/site/content_info.php?content_id=2027

7 comments:

David said...

If your costs really are only $160/month you need to share your secret. I have a brother-in-law who told me he was paying over $500/month in gas for his commute of 42 miles - until he quit working where he would have to commute.

I'm not trying to doubt your numbers, just to reconcile them to other stories I have heard.

Cameron said...

My secrets: fuel efficient car and cruise control. I fill up once a week at around $40 a tank.

That's just for the commute to work. $160 isn't my entire gasoline bill for the month. But the express bus would be just for the commute as well.

Any ideas on why it costs UTA so much more?

Jamie said...

jI go to layton to visit my family but after reading it's 4 bucks a ride, It would be cheaper for me to just drive myself and the kids.

Jesse Harris said...

Part of the benefit of the UTA is the reach of the system and the seamless hand-off from one county to another. That said, public transit needs to present a value proposition to you in order to be worth something. If it ends up being more expensive, it's a waste.

When doing that calculation, don't forget the cost of your time. If you can telecommute while on the bus or train, that extra time you travel has just been turned into work time. I have a co-worker who does this on his trip from Clearfield to Sandy each morning and evening and managed to get about two or three hours of work done each day without being in the office at all. You can't very well do this while driving.

Cameron said...

Jesse,

Thanks for the comment.

I appreciate the time argument. However, since the express buses only come at certain times, it's not as though I can use the commute to get work done so I can go home early. Yes, I can work more, and that could be more efficient, but it won't save me any time. In fact, since I carpool I get to drive in the same HOV lane the bus will, so I likely have as short or shorter a commute as bus passengers.

Cameron said...

I want to clarify though. I'm not against mass transit. I think express buses would be valuable to Eagle Mountain. When I went to the U I rode TRAX all the time - largely because of parking issues. (But also because I paid the fare in my student fees whether I used transit or not). My mother-in-law rides an express bus from Riverton to downtown every day, and it serves her well. Downtown workers have very few parking options. If I were in that situation, perhaps my cost analysis would be different.

But even with parking, it's hard to come up with the level of money UTA is talking about here. $600k + $10k (at least) + $160/month fare (which are likely to continue to rise).

I just don't understand why it costs so much for two express bus routes between EM and Salt Lake.

And I wonder if that's the only option.

Frank Staheli said...

As a former city councilman in Santaquin, Utah, I opposed attempts to bring a subsidized UTA mass transit system to Santaquin. It never came, because the city couldn't afford to socialize (yes, that socialism) those costs with increased sales taxes at the expense of the many for the benefit of the few who would ride.

Interestingly, I work for BYU, and have been tempted (I still might) to use the much more highly subsidized perk that UTA gives to BYU employees.

But from a free market standpoint, I oppose UTA as now constituted (although I still use it from time to time) for the following reasons:

1) It needs federal dollars to make it work. Based on average federal inefficiencies, if we had kept the amount of money locally that it took to get $600,000 back from the Feds, we would have had approximately $2 million dollars. That--a state subsidy of $2 million instead of a federal one of $600k--would be much preferable to the current scheme. We've become so enamored by federal largess coming towards us that it's become hard to see the damage that it does when it first leaves our pocketbooks.

2) UTA receives a large state government subsidy that crowds out other, potentially more efficient public transit systems. As a result of this subsidy, UTA uses buses that are far larger and consume far more energy than is needed. A private transit system would have to be efficient to succeed, whereas UTA and other public transit systems aren't "burdened" by this "triviality".

In some states and locales, it's illegal for private transit to compete with publicly subsidized transit, but I think it's legal in Utah. If there really is enough demand for mass transit from Eagle Mountain (or anywhere), it should be privately implemented. It may be hard to start up in the short run, but in the long run society will be better off for it.

For your short run, the best solution is the one you're using--cutting your cost of $160 per month in half by carpooling. Others could cut costs in similar manners, but most people don't look for alternative solutions, because government solutions make sluggards of nearly all of us.