This is an archived article that was published on in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Meet Jana Nytch - light rail rider from Sandy to her job in downtown Salt Lake City. Next, Julia Norton, of Midvale - she takes her car to work, also in Salt Lake.

Two commuters, two decisions about how to get to work every day. With the average price of regular unleaded gasoline expected to rise soon above $2.35 a gallon, decisions about using your personal vehicle or public transportation are more and more relevant. And while commuters like Nytch and Norton make their choices based on more than just their pocketbooks, their personal decisions and those of thousands of daily commuters have wider implications for the U.S. economy and for public health.

Like every morning for the past five years, Nytch catches the TRAX light rail at the Sandy stop and rides it to downtown Salt Lake City where she works as a manager in statistical records for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At the current gas prices in the Salt Lake area, averaging $2.24 a gallon for regular unleaded - the highest price ever recorded in Utah - Jana and Craig Nytch said it costs more than $30 to fill their Oldsmobile Bravada, which they would be doing every week if Jana drove downtown every day, a round trip of about 40 miles.

A UTA transit pass now costs $45 monthly; one-way tickets are $1.35 apiece.

Part of Nytch's transit fees are paid by her employer, so it only costs her $15 a month. But even if she paid the full $45, she would still be saving money. Either $30-plus a week or $45 a month; not a tough decision for her, she said.

AAA estimates that the average driver (one who travels 15,000 miles a year) will spend 56.1 cents per mile to own and operate a passenger vehicle in 2005, or $8,415 for the entire year. The price includes gas, regular vehicle maintenance, registration, insurance and depreciation but not parking. However, 8.5 cents per mile or $1,285 a year is spent on gas alone. In 2004 it was 6.5 cents per mile or $975 a year. The numbers increase with larger, more powerful vehicles, such as the Nytches' Bravada.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, sport utility vehicle registrations in Utah in 2002 totaled 240,500, a 94,000 increase from 1997. Registered pickups increased by 51,500 in the same time period.

AAA estimates that owning and operating a six-cylinder 2005 Chevy Trailblazer SUV and driving 15,000 miles will cost $9,574 a year or 63.8 cents per mile.

"If you drive a bigger vehicle, perhaps one with four-wheel-drive, which needs more maintenance, you're looking at some big numbers," said AAA spokesman Geoff Sundstrom.

Data from the Utah Department of Public Safety's driver license division show Utah has 1.7 million drivers. On the flip side, UTA averages 124,827 mass transit boardings per day, which includes TRAX, buses and van pools.

Questions of convenience: Julia Norton, who works as a medical assistant for a private Salt Lake City office in the Avenues neighborhood, said the 37-mile round trip in her Chrysler Sebring costs her $29 a week to fill up.

"I think about the costs of driving all the time," said Norton.

If gasoline prices were to remain as they are now - which isn't likely - Norton would be spending $1,508 this year just in gas, versus $540 a year for a transit pass. Nevertheless, she finds it more convenient to commute by car as bus and light rail schedules aren't a good match with her needs.

"Time is a precious commodity," she said, "and I don't want to spend additional time traveling to work by relying on bus and TRAX schedules."

She said any traffic problems she experiences while driving usually delay her only about 10 minutes.

Brent Lee echoed those sentiments, saying he prefers driving 30 miles round trip from West Jordan to Salt Lake City instead of riding, partly because of bus schedules. It would be a hassle for him to use public transportation, he said.

"It's just not worth it to me, the schedules aren't convenient," he said. However, both he and Norton say they use TRAX if they go directly downtown or someplace near the rail stations.

Besides, driving costs don't affect Lee as much because he uses a Toyota Corolla that averages 32 miles per gallon. Some of the costs, he said, come just from owning a vehicle, even if you commute by public transportation.

Nytch, on the other hand, finds convenience in avoiding the delays of rush hour and inclement weather when she takes TRAX. She is able to relax and chat with other riders while the 20 miles between home and work narrow on the rail line.

"I love TRAX, especially in bad weather," she said. "If I miss one train I know there'll be another one in 15 minutes."

And when her husband picks her up at the Sandy station after work, he knows she'll be there pretty much on time and not delayed by traffic.

Big picture: Personal decisions about commuting also have ripple effects in American society at large.

The U.S. trade deficit hit a record monthly high in February, partly as a result of a surge in oil imports. That deficit has economists concerned that the huge amount of foreign money the United States needs to finance the deficit could at some point trigger a free-fall in the dollar and aggravate inflation, according to The Associated Press. A survey of economists by Bloomberg News also showed they believe energy prices and higher interest rates will cause economic growth to slow this year.

Imported oil also makes the United States more dependent upon producing countries in the Middle East, which has huge implications for U.S. foreign policy.

In addition to financial problems, the use of personal vehicles also adds significantly to air pollution that affects human health.

Rick Sprott, director of the Division of Air Quality, said vehicles are running cleaner than they ever have but are still the largest source of air pollution.

Libbey Mathews, health program specialist for the Utah Department of Health, said air pollution is associated with asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic lung disease, congenital heart disease and other respiratory problems.

"We would love to see more people use public transportation because it would . . . better our air and help health conditions," she said.

Sprott said an increase in bus or TRAX use could be a boon to improving Utah's air quality.

If buses are filled, he said, "that's where you get your dividend."

Commuter costs

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