As the nation was starting to feel the pain many drivers were experiencing at the pump, Utah Governor Spenser Cox proposed reinstating the popular and successful Free Fare February program to encourage people to get out of their cars and into transit. This plan would save people money, reduce congestion, and better utilize existing services. In short, Governor Cox appears to view transit for what it is: a public good.
But, enthusiasm for the idea was short lived. House Majority Leader, Mike Shultz (Republican – Hooper) told the Salt Lake Tribune that “There’s not much support for free or reduced fares on mass transit” and “that [free fares] would only benefit a handful of people.”
Though disappointing, Shultz’s views are not surprising. Shultz represents Roy, Hooper, and sections of West Point, straddling Southern Weber and North-West Davis County:
Now take a look at UTA’s service coverage for Shultz’s area:
Hooper doesn’t even show up on the map, and the closest bus route to Representative Shultz is the 626, which runs every 30 minutes on weekdays, every hour on Saturdays, and doesn’t run at all on Sundays. His home (who’s address is publicly available through the legislative website) is 1.75 miles away from the nearest stop as the crow flies and, in reality, closer to 2.75 miles if he actually wanted to walk to his stop.
So, can we really blame Representative Shutlz for his views on transit? He doesn’t think transit benefits people because transit doesn’t benefit him or the people he serves. For Shultz, “inconvenient” doesn’t even start to describe transit use for him or his community and would not even enter his mind as a viable option to do much of anything.
But, here in lies the problem: the people making decisions about transit don’t use transit.
Utah, for the most part, grew up after the car was firmly engrained in the culture. When the Federal Highway Act was signed into law in 1956, Utah’s population was about 789,000. When the final mile of I-215 was paved in 1989, the last major freeway built in Utah, her population had grown to 1.7 million. Today, 3.3 million call Utah home, and roughly 8 out of 10 of them live within 5 miles of a freeway.
This isn’t unique to Utah, of course, but development around the car begets development around the car and it has become so ingrained that it is hard for people, let alone policymakers, to imagine any other alternatives. Indeed, lawmakers don’t bat an eye to use state funds to expand sections of road in rural Utah even though the vast majority of Utahns well never actually use the stretch of road in question, but suggest that state funds be use to fund transit in Utah’s urban core of 2.6 million and pearls are clutched tight.
“Why should St. George pay for a train in Salt Lake it will never use!” “Why should the good people of Cedar City pay for a bus in Logan?!” or “why should Hooper pay for a FrontRunner stop in Provo?” All while passing a $4.2 Billion budget for transportation, the vast majority of which goes to roads.
Now, it is fair to say that several areas of Utah could only be serviced by roads, and that buses need roads just as much as cars do, but it is also fair to say lawmakers are addicted to building roads and rarely consider (or give) funding for transit – when they do, it tends to be one-time funding for “ribbon cutting” infrastructure like train stations. You would be hard pressed to find a state budget that expands service or increases frequency.
Utah’s 5 municipal transit services currently have a total operating budget of just under $650 million (though more than $100 million of this in 2022 is in one time stimulus funds).
· UTA: $635 million (includes $100 million in stimulus funds)
· Park City: $7 million
· Cache Valley Transit: $4 million
· SunTran: $3.6 million
· Cedar Area Transportation Service $364,000
Utah has a very average gas tax, ranking 24th among the states and sits at $31.9 per gallon An $0.003 increase to the gas tax dedicated to transit could generate an estimated $3.6 million. If vehicle registrations had a $5 transit fee attached to it, it could generate an $11.5 million, and if the state were to dedicate 5% of the 2023 transportation budget specifically to mass transit, it would add an additional $79.1 million to fund transit in Utah. With these three changes, we have suddenly generated $94.2 million for transit that otherwise did not exist and would increase budgets by almost 15%.
Imagine the new bus routes, imagine the rail lines, imagine the covered bus stops that could be built with an additional $94 million dedicated to transit each year to both bright, shiny capital projects AND boring things such as driver pay and maintenance!
So, when lawmakers such as Representative Shultz say that transit only serves a handful of people, remember that he is right – but remind them that it doesn’t have to be that way. UTRU is here to advocate for both the current and future transit rider, and a big part of advocacy is telling policymakers that change is possible if we just start thinking differently about transit.
The key is to focus on your community and its needs. Show up to community council meetings, ask people running for office if they support transit funding and, if they do, volunteer for their campaigns. Talk to those who fight transit, not just those who support it, and tell them how expanded transit benefits them too.
The math is clear and the benefits are obvious to those who use transit. But we as transit riders have to remember that many grew up only knowing cars as a way to get around and that change can be a scary thing. Don’t chuckle when someone says that they are afraid of the bus: educate! Don’t shun those who say that trains are dangerous for kids while ignoring 2 tons of steel rumbling past: be an ambassador!
UTRU is here to help provide a voice for the transit we deserve, but we can’t be everywhere always. That is why we want to provide you the tools you need to be a better advocate.
Keep an eye out for trainings on how to advocate in the near future and, in the mean time, make sure you don’t just preach to the choir. Talk, explain, be kind, and be loud! UTRU is here to help you amplify your voice so that more people learn to stop worrying and love the bus.