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Light rail costs too much, does too little

The Auditor General of the Utah legislature has released a report critical of the Utah Transit Authority, which runs light rail and buses and is building commuter rail in the Salt Lake City-Ogden area. Many of the criticisms will be familiar to Antiplanner readers:


Typically empty UTA bus.

Flickr photo by Theorris.

The auditor also had several other interesting remarks.


The auditor slips up on one point: The report concludes transit “is most likely having a positive impact on congestion” because 4.5 percent of commuters use public transit. In making this conclusion, the auditor assumes that all of those people would otherwise be driving their cars. This is unwarranted, particularly if it is inferred (as it will be) that it is rail transit that is reducing congestion.

Pretty, but not that useful.

Flickr photo by BWJones.

The 4.5 percent comes from the Wasatch Front Regional Council, another government agency committed to rail transit, and it applies to peak travel times. According to the Census Bureau, 3.9 percent of all Salt Lake City-area commuters “usually” took transit to work in 2005. If we go back to 1990, 9 years before UTA’s first light-rail line opened, the percentage was 3.5 percent. Apparently rail took, at most, 0.4 percent of commuters out of their cars. However, if we go back to 1980, it was 5.5 percent, so it is not clear that rail transit did anything at all.

Even if you accept that the auditor’s statements apply broadly to all transit, not rail transit, there is no reason to believe that, without UTA, there would be no transit at all. Salt Lake had a private transit system until 1970. There is every reason to believe that this private system would have responded to the energy crises of the 1970s by increasing transit ridership, just as UTA did — only without subsidies.

In any case, the auditor provides independent confirmation of many things that the Antiplanner has stated in the past: Transit agencies in general, and UTA in particular, are politically oriented to building empires, not serving the public.


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Audit of Salt Lake City Transit

Feb 7


Reprinted from The Antiplanner