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A national research group is pointing to the Utah Transit Authority's TRAX lines as an example of big spending for mediocre results and argues investing in better bus systems would have been cheaper and more effective.
"Building new rail transit lines, at least in the Americas, is almost always a mistake," writes Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow for the CATO Institute, which promotes libertarian ideals of limited government and free markets.
"Providing the same transit capacity with buses instead of trains would cost far less," he says in a policy analysis released this week. TRAX is among several projects nationally that it criticizes.
The UTA disagrees with his assessment.
UTA spokesman Remi Barron said light-rail transit "has proven to be a successful investment, both in Utah and across the country." He said a proper mix of light rail with buses and commuter rail "creates an effective multi-modal transit system, like the one we have here on the Wasatch Front."
But O'Toole included TRAX in a list of light-rail projects that he said are "particularly unproductive."
To back that conclusion, his paper notes the 2012 National Transit Database shows that TRAX train seats are filled only to 21.8 percent of capacity (lower than a national average of 39.2 percent he listed for major light-rail systems). He said fares recover only about 22.1 percent of TRAX costs, which is actually slightly above average.
TRAX had 3,805 "passenger miles" traveled each weekday per mile of track, O'Toole said, below the 5,245 average nationally among major light-rail systems.
Barron responded that "UTA's TRAX and FrontRunner trains are full during rush hours," and "ridership in 2013 was at an all-time high, and has continued to increase this year."
O'Toole said TRAX trains can be four cars long in Salt Lake City longer than the two or three typical elsewhere because of larger city blocks here meaning they could carry up to 12,000 people an hour.
However, he said, buses can carry up to 10,000 people an hour on average nationally on similar routes without the need for expensive rail and station construction in the middle of streets. He said double-deck buses can carry 17,000.
Single-decked buses using express or bus-only lanes can carry 66,000 people, according to O'Toole, and double-deck buses on such lanes could carry 110,000.
He contends that, as in the "Marge vs. the Monorail" episode of "The Simpsons," many cities opt for rail over cheaper buses "to keep up with their peers in a totally artificial competition to be a 'world-class city.' "
Barron noted that while UTA's recent focus has been completing 70 miles of new TRAX, FrontRunner and streetcar lines in the past seven years which forced cutting some bus service to pay for it the agency still sees investing in rail service as a vital part of its integrated system.
"UTA added $4 million in new bus service in 2013," he said, "and we continue to make improvements to our bus routes and schedules, and we have plans to add more bus and bus rapid transit in the future."
Bus rapid transit is sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels, with some bus-only lanes, limited stations and requirements that riders buy tickets from machines before boarding. One such line now runs along 3500 South in West Valley City.
O'Toole said then that, in 1990, the share of commuters taking transit to work was much higher in Salt Lake City and Denver than in Las Vegas.
"Since then, Denver and Salt Lake have both opened light-rail lines and seen transit's share of commuters drop." But he said Las Vegas instead focused on improving bus service "and doubled the share of commuters riding transit."
Bus vs. TRAX on passenger capacity
• Four-car TRAX train: 12,000 people per hour
• Single-decked bus on streets, national average: 10,000
• Double-decked bus on streets, national average: 17,000
• Single-decked bus on busway, national average: 66,000
• Double-decked bus on busway, national average: 110,000
Source: CATO Institute