Home > Blog > Public Investments vs. Wasteful Subsidies: The Importance of Changing the Mindset on Transit

The 2022 Legislative session was a banner year for transit funding in Utah, with the legislature allocating $117.3 Million towards transit, up from the $15.7 Million it invested in 2021 and 2020, respectively…and the $0 it invested from 2017 to 2019.

Of course, the majority of the $102 Million increase came from federal stimulus funds and wasn’t inherently driven by the legislature’s desire to invest in mass transit. Over the past six years, the state has invested $148.6 Million into transit, roughly $38.49 for every Utahn. During that same time period, however, total transportation spending was $10.7 Billion, or $2,788.79 for each and every Utahn, and $3.66 Billion of that $10.7 went directly toward highway construction.

Now, he term “Highway” is a broad one, to be sure. It isn’t just I-15 or Highway 89, it is also every state road (you know, the ones that have signs next to them with beehives and numbers in em’), and, to be sure these roads can provide vital connections within and between communities. But, why is it that investments in roads are seen as public investments while investments in mass transit are seen as wasteful subsidies?

There are many reasons, of course, but one we would like to focus in on is the fact that roads are made for “me,” but buses and trains are made for “we.” My car will take me where want to go when decide want to go, but we need to wait for a train or bus to pick us up at a set time. This second concept runs counter to North America’s individualistic mindset, despite the fact that we have all seen the very real costs associated with it when it comes to car ownership: traffic, pollution, increased stress, sprawl, and the additional costs that come with owning a car.

Take this mindset, wash, rinse, and repeat over several generations, and suddenly you find yourself with a self-fulfilling prophecy: transit doesn’t work, so we won’t invest in transit, so transit doesn’t work.

But, change is in the air. In May of 2022, UTA reported 100,000 average weekday boardings (for you data nerds, they actually have a cool dashboard available here). With this in mind, it falls on policymakers to realize that for every 100,000 people using transit a day, there are 100,000 reasons why.

For some, car ownership is not a possibility or the price of gas has forced them to reduce trips, others may choose transit because they hate traffic, some do it out of concern for the environment, while still others find it a convenient way to get around town. Regardless of the reason, transit ridership is rising post-COVID, and it is doubtful that any of these factors will change much in the coming years.

We can’t change the funding decisions of the past, but we can fight for stronger investments in the future.

Utah’s 5 municipal transit services currently had a total annual operating budget of just under $650 million in 2022 (though more than $100 million of this was 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 dedicated to both bright, shiny capital projects AND boring things such as driver pay and maintenance!

Well, we did – and this is what we think things could look like if Utah had the political will to start investing in transit as much as it does in its highways:

This, of course, is just a map of what could be – and there is no room for the bus lines that would criss-cross the entire network. It also doesn’t represent some of the fantastic ideas we received when we published this image to our Twitter page, but such a network exits somewhere in some alternate dimension (even if the only way to access it is through a wormhole behind a Burger King parking lot).

Compare it to what we actually have and dream of the future of transit in Utah. Here, we will make it easy for you, just click on the image for our animated GIF of what we have versus what could be:

Investments in transit are vital to Utah’s future and, perhaps if we spend just a touch more on rail and a touch less on cars, we could build a more vibrant economy with transit at its core.

If you agree that we need to educate and advocate for better transit, consider joining UTRU if you have not already done so! It is super easy – just fill out the form at utru.org/subscribe!

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