This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Utah Transit Authority recently announced record ridership of 45.1 million boardings in 2014. But judging whether the UTA's $2.5 billion rail-building blitz of recent years has lived up to early expectations is less clear.
UTA says all six rail lines are meeting or exceeding daily ridership projections. But it does that by claiming what it previously called "opening day" projections were actually for conditions expected two years later.
That's different than the way those numbers were previously explained: that "opening day" ridership meant daily boardings at the outset.
Under the old definition, two of the lines have yet to attract as many daily riders as expected when they began operation. The remaining four are exceeding early projections by any measure.
Streetcar meeting desires? • "The S-Line is doing great," UTA spokesman Remi Barron wrote in an email about the streetcar in Sugar House that opened in December 2013.
In March, the streetcar had 1,140 boardings on an average weekday, according to data provided by UTA in response to a Salt Lake Tribune open-records request.
It was projected to have 3,000 average weekday boardings at opening, according to an application for federal funding which helped the project win a $26 million grant. So current ridership would appear to be 60 percent below the expectation for opening day 15 months ago.
But Barron wrote that projection "was arrived at by a consultant long before the 'Great Recession' and was partially based on development that came to a stop" because of the economic downturn.
He said a later environmental assessment prepared by UTA projected the line would have 2,000 boardings a day by 2030.
UTA didn't publish an updated projection for what ridership would be in the line's early years, but planners figuring ridership projections for two years after opening would "typically take 60 percent of the 2030 projection, which would be 1,200," Barron said. So ridership at 1,140 now is on track to meet expectations.
"The numbers for the S-Line are good and getting better," Barron said. "They are about where our planners expected them to be less than two years after it opened."
He added that with the S-Line's adjacent "trail now complete, the previously delayed development taking shape, and more development planned, the S-Line is a great asset both now and in the future."
The streetcar takes 12 minutes to cover its two-mile run, for an average 10 mph. UTA's parallel Route 21 bus, two blocks away, takes 13 minutes to cover the same distance. Walking can sometimes be faster than the streetcar, depending on the distance traveled and how long the wait for the train will be.
Daybreak targets • The other line that apparently has not yet hit opening-day projections, at least under previous definitions, is the "Mid-Jordan" TRAX extension between Murray and South Jordan's Daybreak area. It is part of the red line.
It had 5,200 boardings on an average weekday in March, according to UTA data.
That is 1.9 percent below the initial "opening" projection of 5,300. That line opened in August 2011.
Barron said "a difference of 100 boardings is not statistically significant," and the "red line is essentially at projections." He said making comparisons to initial projections may be misleading because the Daybreak line was initially penciled in to go directly to downtown Salt Lake City and to the airport, but instead now goes to the University of Utah.
He adds that "the term 'opening day' ridership projection is a misnomer." He said it is not "intended to be what the actual ridership will be on the very first day of service," but instead for what conditions will be two years after opening.
That is not what UTA had said in previous years. It often described the projections, when the various lines opened, as ridership at opening.
For example in 2012, former UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter explained to The Tribune why the then-16-month-old Mid-Jordan and West Valley City TRAX extensions had not yet hit projections for opening day ridership.
UTA originally planned to open Mid-Jordan and West Valley in 2015, he said at the time. "But we opened the lines four years earlier than that. 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."
Barron points to an online description of "before and after" studies required by the Federal Transit Administration to measure whether projects that receive federal funds achieve their goals.
He said it requires looking at "actual conditions two years after the project has opened," and says projections developed by UTA are actually calculated under that time frame, not the opening.
"While it may not have been conveyed before, our planning department assures me that projections are not simply 'opening day' numbers," Barron said, but are for what "would be two years after revenue operation begins."
Success • No matter what measure is used, some of the new rail lines are doing well.
The new FrontRunner commuter rail extension from Salt Lake City to Provo had 10,533 average weekday boardings in March. That was 55 percent higher than its 6,800 initial "opening" projection. The line opened in December 2012.
The TRAX extension from downtown Salt Lake City to the airport, which opened in April 2013, averaged 5,776 boardings on weekdays in March. That was 26 percent higher than its "opening" projection of 4,600.
The West Valley City extension of the TRAX green line had 3,936 average weekday boardings in March, 19 percent higher than the 3,300 projected at opening.
And the Draper extension of the blue line, which opened in August 2013, had 2,325 boardings on an average weekday in March. That was 3.3 percent higher than the opening projection of 2,250.
"All lines are doing well, with ridership at projections or, in some cases, notably over projections," Barron wrote.
Changing numbers • Christopher Stout, president of the Utah Transit Riders Union, criticizes the fuzziness in ridership projections.
"The fact that the goal post and starting time has changed doesn't surprise me," said Stout, whose group has been pushing UTA to restore bus service cut during the recession to help afford new rail lines. "To keep justifying that their rail system is operating the way they originally designed it, they have to change the numbers."
He added, "The numbers have always seemed too optimistic to us. I never really believed the Daybreak line would have the ridership that they anticipated, and it doesn't matter whether it's the opening day they used. … It's never going to have the type of ridership they want with the type of service they are providing."
Riding the Daybreak line to downtown Salt Lake City takes an hour, and is slower than old express-bus service that was cut to help pay for the rail line, Stout said, claiming the switch pushed many people back to their cars.
UTA officials have said that if voters approve raising sales tax for transit, the agency would use the extra revenue mostly to restore and expand bus services.
It's about time, Stout said.
"They are slowly coming to the realization that their bus system is really going to be the workhorse behind the backbone of the rail system. The only way that Daybreak or any other of the lines are going to see an increase in ridership is if they change the frequency and amount of bus service."
Ridership now, in future • UTA has long said it plans to move from a rail-expansion phase to a renewed focus on increasing bus service. But in the meantime, UTA defends its current system.
"Ridership is strong throughout the system," he said. "Ridership last year was the highest in our history and increased at twice the national average."
Ridership rose 2.2 percent last year, while the national average uptick was 0.95 percent. But UTA had set a goal to increase ridership 4 percent.
Barron added that UTA built 70 miles of rail in seven years, completing the work two years early and $300 million under budget during a recession.
"[It] was one of the most aggressive programs in the country and is the envy of many communities. These projects were not just built for today, but to provide mobility and economic vitality and development for decades to come."
Performance vs. projections
How six new UTA rail lines are attracting riders compared to initial projections for their "opening" for average weekday boardings:
S-Line • Projected: 3,000.* Now: 1,140. Difference: -60%
Mid-Jordan TRAX • Projected: 5,300. Now: 5,200. Difference: -1.9%
Draper TRAX • Projected: 2,250. Now: 2,325. Difference: 3.3%
West Valley City TRAX • Projected: 3,300. Now: 3,936. Difference: 19.3%
Airport TRAX • Projected: 4,600. Now: 5,776. Difference: 25.6%
FrontRunner South • Projected: 6,800. Now: 10,553. Difference: 54.8%
*Projection for S-Line was as listed in a successful federal-grant application.