Two concerns about SB136: Name change…and funding

I’ve written previously about my support for SB136 and the excellent work of the Transportation Governance & Funding Task Force that recommended this visionary legislation.

As the bill has worked its way through the session, which ends Thursday night, I have two concerns:

First, and most importantly, the much-needed additional funding for public transit incorporated into earlier versions of the bill appears to be in danger of being lost or significantly reduced. That would be a big step back from the vision of the Task Force and would seriously damage the ability of public transit to relieve freeway congestion as the Wasatch Front population doubles over the next few decades.

Second, the bill changes the name of Utah Transit Authority to Transit District Utah. I’m not necessarily opposed to a name change as a symbol that, along with governance changes, this is a fresh start for UTA. But a name change ought to be done very carefully with input from smart branding and communications experts. Changing a name that has been around for decades and is so universally recognized is no small thing. In an organization as big and visible as UTA, an abrupt name change can also be very expensive, costing in the millions of dollars.

Also, I just think Transit District Utah is rather boring. The mission of UTA will change in the future from a bus and train agency to incorporate all sorts of innovative and high-tech transportation solutions. A smart creative team could come up with something more interesting and descriptive.

Also, does the name need to be dictated in statute? Perhaps the legislation should specify that UTA works with an interim transportation committee on the name change to ensure it’s done right with all the ramifications understood.

Regarding transit funding, we often forget that UTA operates with half the funding, or less, of most of its peer agencies in large western metropolitan areas. The Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle and California metro areas all assess significantly higher taxes for public transit than does the Wasatch Front. And we are just as urbanized as they are.

We can’t expect to enjoy excellent service frequency, low fares, broad transit coverage and high ridership without more funding. UTA is as efficient and well-managed as any of those peer agencies, but cannot sufficiently expand the system and make it more convenient with the lowest funding in the region.

I thought one of the real breakthroughs of the Task Force was a clear recognition by Utah leaders that public transit must be expanded and made more convenient to relieve highway congestion as Utah grows. Certainly, more highways will be built. But top transportation leaders say it is impossible to build and expand highways to accommodate the population boom.

If we are to ensure excellent mobility, reduce air pollution, and maintain our enviable quality of life, we must expand public transit and wisely develop in mixed-use centers — or gridlock is our future.

I’m hopeful the final version of SB136 will include mechanisms for adequate public transit funding to keep people, bikes, cars, trains, buses and goods moving on the Wasatch Front. And take some time to look at a name change.