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It's a lofty statistic that may help keep an improving local economy on track: The Salt Lake City metro area's trains and buses now rank as the nation's best in connecting people to jobs.
A new study shows 64.1 percent of the area's residents can reach a typical job within a 90-minute transit ride a 10-percentage-point jump from last year, when the area ranked third nationally.
The improvement comes after completion of the new West Valley City and Mid-Jordan TRAX lines.
"Not only did those extensions help, but so did our redesign of the bus system at the same time," said Utah Transit Authority General Manager Michael Allegra. "We used the new rail lines to modify our whole system using a market approach, looking at what was working and what wasn't," and trying to take passengers where they most wanted to go.
The study, released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization, reported a 27 percent average among the nation's top 100 metro areas. Most of those areas long ago designed "spoke and wheel" transit systems to take people from suburbs to downtown areas. However, as more jobs have moved into dispersed 'burbs, such systems connect fewer people with jobs.
Allegra said UTA has modified its operations to keep up with changing demands and evolved into a grid system with interconnected east-west and north-south routes. He said the area's geography bounded by mountains and lakes also lends itself to that.
"We'll do even better in the future," Allegra said, "with the new projects we have coming."
UTA plans to start a FrontRunner commuter rail extension from Salt Lake City to Provo in December. It plans to complete TRAX extensions next year to Draper and the Salt Lake City International Airport, plus a new Sugar House streetcar line.
"We have the highest per capita investment in transit of any region in the country over the past decade, and that shows in these statistics, said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the transportation-planning Wasatch Front Regional Council.
He said that not only have UTA and local governments put transit stops near jobs, but "also employers recognized the importance of providing transit access to their workers, so businesses are choosing to locate near transit stations."
That helps the Salt Lake City area attract more jobs.
"Access to transit is an important factor that businesses consider when deciding whether to locate here, or expand here," Gruber said. "It is important for the reliability of travel time and quality of life."
Gruber said continuing to upgrade connections with jobs is vital because the Wasatch Front's population is expected to swell by 65 percent during the next 30 years, adding another 1.4 million people. He said transit is key to controlling traffic congestion and air pollution amid such growth.
Allegra said UTA studies show that 80 percent of its current riders also own a vehicle. "So they are choosing to use our system, they don't have to," including using it to travel to work.
The Provo-Orem and Ogden-Clearfield metro areas which are served by UTA also scored high in the rankings.
Provo-Orem finished seventh nationally, and 47 percent of its population can reach a typical job within 90 minutes on transit. That's up from No. 9 last year. But the number of people who could reach the typical job actually dipped from 48 percent the previous year.
Ogden-Clearfield ranked No. 11 nationally, the same place it had the previous year. The study said 44 percent of that population could reach a typical job within a 90-minute transit ride, up from 42 percent.
Connecting people to jobs
The following is the share of the metropolitan population that can reach a typical job within 90 minutes via public transit:
Salt Lake City metro area • 64.1 percent, No. 1 nationally
Provo-Orem metro area • 47 percent, No. 7
Ogden-Clearfield metro area • 44 percent, No. 11
National average for top 100 metro areas • 27 percent
Source • Brookings Institution