UTA opening TRAX service to Salt Lake airport

UTA opening TRAX service to Salt Lake airport   : Utah’s rapidly built system for rail transit, boosted by the Olympics, is getting a crowning touch with a connection to the Salt Lake City International Airport from the city’s downtown.

Regular airport service will start Sunday, linking passengers with light-rail throughout Salt Lake City and suburbs and stretching on faster lines for 87 miles along the urban corridor framed by the towering Wasatch Range.

Airport trains will run every 15 minutes. It means passengers can combine light rail and bus transit to four of Utah’s ski resorts, including Alta and Snowbird.

In little more than a dozen years, Utah has aggressively built a 140-mile rail system that has been rated as one of the most efficient for passengers.

It’s convenient for around 65 percent of commuters in its service territory, more than in any other U.S. metro area, the Brookings Institution recently determined. And in a prestigious award for an upstart, it was rated one of the best 2002 transit systems by the American Public Transportation Association.

The association also awarded Utah twice for innovation, most recently in 2009 for an electronic fare system.

Ridership numbers are soaring, despite grumbling over recent fare hikes, and politicians are promoting the shiny new transit as a way to curb noxious air pollution from tailpipe and other emissions in winter. But it almost didn’t happen, and the transit agency is struggling.

Early on, state and municipal leaders objected to subsidizing rail with sales tax receipts, saying it would never pay to operate itself in a largely rural state.

But under pressure of the buildup to the 2002 Winter Olympics, and with Washington offering help, they got on board. The federal government paid for hundreds of millions of dollars that had street cars lumbering through downtown for foreign visitors and linking some venues. The UTA has always maintained it won funding on the merits.

And then, leveraged by the Olympics, the system took off.

“Our political leaders were out front in the planning of this,” said Steve Meyer, chief capital development officer for Utah Transit Authority. “We built the backbone. Now it’s just a matter of optimizing the system.”

The high marks for transit are partly an accident of geography. Utah is largely a rural state of high mountains, deep canyons and vast deserts, which has concentrated 2 million up north along the Wasatch Front.

It’s a corridor of wall-to-wall cities and towns squeezed as narrow as 2 miles at chokepoints. With a major population packed inside a strip no wider than 15 miles instead of a sprawl, rail can move more people on fewer lines.

“It’s an urban corridor perfectly suited for rail,” Meyer said. “We have 78 percent of the state’s population inside our system.”

Efficient or not, some are calling out recent hikes to $2.50 as being among the highest for a street fare, and not worth a short ride. Only five U.S. transit agencies charge more, The Salt Lake Tribune has reported.

The authority defends fare hikes as necessary and said it was tightening costs, in part by powering transit buses with compressed natural gas.

The recession cut deeply into sales-tax revenues at a time when he transit authority was aggressively spending. In 2010, UTA imposed service reductions, largely on rapid-bus transit and weekend and night service.

“Our revenues are still way below what we projected,” Meyer said.

Meyer said UTA is moving ahead with another innovation, distance-based fares calculated electronically by the mile, with passengers tapping smart phones across transit readers to record their boarding and departure.

But the authority also wants to do away with the popular downtown free fare zone, a sticking point with Salt Lake City leaders. Transit officials have offered no timetable for a switch.

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Source : sfgate

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