The new West Valley City and Mid-Jordan TRAX lines are still carrying far fewer riders now 16 months after they opened than projections estimated they would attract when they first began operation.
Critics say that means Utah Transit Authority made a big error with its estimates and raises questions about whether the agency can really afford to operate them and other new rail lines.
But UTA says it is not overly concerned and the main reason lines have not yet hit ridership projections is that those numbers originally were based on the lines opening in 2015. "But we opened the lines four years earlier than that," said UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter. "We expected more development in our projections, which has not yet occurred. The recession slowed it down…but both lines are right on track to reach projected ridership numbers by 2015."
UTA projected that its new West Valley City TRAX extension, part of the green line, would have 3,300 passenger boardings a day when it opened. It had only 69 percent of that during its opening month of August 2011 and it has risen only to 80 percent this past October.
That's still better than the TRAX extension to the Daybreak area of South Jordan that opened at the same time, as part of the red line. It was projected to have 5,300 riders at opening. It had only half of that in its opening month, and it has since risen to 76 percent.
"Those numbers are a huge problem," says Claire Geddes, an activist who is often critical of the UTA. "It raises questions about whether they can really afford to operate those lines. Their predictions to justify those lines were too rosy. Audits have raised questions before about UTA estimates being too rosy."
For example, the Utah Legislative Auditor's Office warned earlier this year that UTA was using overly optimistic revenue estimates and understated expenses in its planning and borrowinga combination auditors feared "may threaten the agency's ability to operate the system being built."
Also, last year when UTA borrowed $100 million to keep its rail construction projects on track, Fitch Ratings downgraded UTA to an A+ rating from an AA- rating. It said UTA's "debt profile is somewhat weak" because of heavy debt where "rising debt service has been shrinking revenues available for operations" and could hurt operations unless sales taxes pick up amid a bad economy.
Besides opening the new West Valley and Mid-Jordan TRAX extensions, UTA also just opened an extension of its FrontRunner commuter train between Salt Lake City and Provo. In April, it is scheduled to open an extension of its green line to the Salt Lake City International Airport. In August, it is scheduled to open an extension of the blue line to Draper. And in a year, it is scheduled to open a new Sugar House streetcar line.
Geddes noted that UTA reduced bus service as new rail lines opened, saying it was needed to afford those operations. "Maybe TRAX ridership isn't hitting projections because people can't get to the TRAX because of all the cuts they are making to buses," she said.
UTA says bus service was restructured to connect to and take advantage of new TRAX linesand says overall transit service increased despite cuts to buses.
UTA also insists it is doing fine financially. Carpenter says the new TRAX lines are on track to hit projections by 2015when they were first expected to openas new development built into those projections is finished and brings more riders.
He said, for example, "The Fairbourne Station development near Valley Fair mall should help the green line when it is completed." He said some development in Daybreak also slowed during the economic downturn, but should pick up.
Carpenter adds that the recession also hurt ridership in other ways besides slowing expected development. "There were more people who were unemployed, which meant fewer people commuting to work every day."
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder also says he's confident new development will bring expected riders over the long term to the green line in his city.
"For example, last month the new Megaplex theaters opened at Valley Fair Mall, just across the street from the TRAX. Our Black Friday automobile traffic was up 60 percent over the previous year," and it should also increase TRAX traffic, he said.
"We're also going to have a new Embassy Suites hotel there by the end of the year, the first four-star hotel on the west side," and he said extending the green line to the airport should help drive traffic to it and the general area. Also, as part of the Fairbourne Station project around the end of the green line, he said ICO has started a luxury apartment tower.
"We've had new development occurring all along the green line," Winder said. "It will help ridership."
One sign of popularity, at least at TRAX's end-of-the-line West Valley Central Station, is that its parking lot there has been essentially at capacity since the day the line opened.
UTA data show that the parking lot has 139 available parking spotsand averaged 123 cars there at opening, and weekly averages hit as high as 137 last March and April.
UTA has been trying to encourage riders to use, as an alternate, the Decker Lake Station near the Maverik Center. It has 250 parking spots available. At first, an average of only 22 cars a day were using parking there, but that has grown to an average of 59 in Octobermeaning hundreds of spots are still available there daily.
"There is plenty of complimentary parking there [at Decker Lake], and we encourage people to use itespecially those whose travel would be about the same distance to there or the West Valley Central Station," Carpenter said.