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The Outrageous Fares Of The Utah Transit Authority

I hope my readers don't mind, but I'm going to break from the standard geekery for a second, and type up a personal post about something that has been bugging me for the past few years.

For those that don't know, I live in Utah, and work in Salt Lake City for the best local ISP on the planet. I also teach a Linux certification course at the University of Utah 1 night per week as a faculty adjunct instructor. As a benefit of teaching at the University, I get a monthly Utah Transit Authority (UTA) premium transit pass that allows me to ride FrontRunner, TRAX, and standard bus services, without paying out of my personal pocket.

I'll spare you my personal philosophy that all public transit should be paid for in gas taxes at the pump. However, according to a report by KSL, the UTA is one of the most expensive transit systems in the United States. The Salt Lake Tribune also ran a similar story. Just in case the link goes dead, here is a paragraph that I found very telling:

Of 169 U.S. transit agencies that participated in the APTA survey, only five will now have higher base fares for buses than UTA. They are in New York City, $2.75; San Francisco, $4; Nashville, $4; Sugar Land, Texas, $3.50; and Eden Prairie, Minn., $3.

Another four systems match the $2.50 to be charged for buses by UTA. They are in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Portland and Sacramento. The 2012 APTA survey said the median base fare for buses among U.S. transit agencies was $1.50 per trip.

UTA's TRAX also will have among the highest fares nationally for light rail.

No agency included in the 2012 APTA survey now has fares higher than the $2.50 to be charged by UTA — but four match it. They are in Sacramento, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Dallas. Of 21 light-rail agencies surveyed by APTA in 2012, the median light rail base fare was $2 a trip.

That means among transit systems nationally that have lower bus or train fares than UTA are such places as Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Dallas.

Now, I take advantage of my university pass on the UTA, when it's valid. However, it's only valid during trimesters. Between trimesters, because I am adjunct faculty, my card is deactivated on the last pay period of the trimester, and activated on the first pay period of the trimester. So, there is about a full month where I cannot use my university pass, and must pay full fare ride transit.

However, the UTA is offering a 20% discount if you use their tracking FAREPAY card. It's a pre-paid card that you can use as often as you need, provided a balance remains on the card to pay the fare. Because I am currently using the FAREPAY system for about 3 months of the year, I was curious how I could optimize my costs between trimesters. Currently, I drive to a FrontRunner station (a diesel commuter train) which takes me to a TRAX stop (a light rail train). The stop is in the "free fare" zone, so there is no charge to take TRAX to the stop near my office.

So, is it cheaper in both gas and UTA fares to drive to the closest FrontRunner station? Or should I drive a station or two away? Where will I get the cheapest per month cost for getting into work from home? I only live 30.7 miles away from the office by the most direct route.

Turns out, it doesn't involve the UTA at all. Not only is driving directly into the office considerably faster (45 minutes one way commute versus 65 minutes on transit), but it's cheaper. Considerably cheaper.

Here is a table showing my work. There are a total of 6 FrontRunner stations between my home and my office. In order, they are Clearfield, Layton, Farmington, Woods Cross, North Temple, and Salt Lake Central. I work a standard 9-5 M-F day job, and once per week, I must take TRAX up to the university.

First, I have a fuel efficient car. I've averaged about 32-35 miles to the gallon with mixed city and freeway driving from home to work and back. I've actually logged 45 mpg many times, but I'm usually doing almost straight freeway driving with hypermiling strategies, and it isn't that difficult to get 40 mpg in my car. Regardless, I'll use 32 miles per gallon as the basis for my commuter costs. With an average Utah state gas rate of $3.61 per gallon, this puts my monthly costs for gasoline at $150 per month to commute round trip to work from home. Looking over my payment history with my bank, this value is almost exactly spot-on.

Here are the distances from my house to each of the FrontRunner stations:

To Station One Way Gallons PPG Gas Round Trip
Clearfield 4.2 mi 0.13125 $3.61 $0.47 $0.95
Layton 6.6 mi 0.20625 $3.61 $0.74 $1.49
Farmington 13.4 mi 0.41875 $3.61 $1.51 $3.02
Woods Cross 20.6 mi 0.64375 $3.61 $2.32 $4.65
North Temple 29 mi 0.90625 $3.61 $3.27 $6.54
Salt Lake 30.3 mi 0.946875 $3.61 $3.42 $6.84

Looking strictly at UTA fares, here is what it would cost me to get into the office from each FrontRunner station:

From Station Fare 80% Fare Round Trip 80% Round Trip
Clearfield $4.30 $3.50 $8.60 $7.00
Layton $3.70 $3.00 $7.40 $6.00
Farmington $3.10 $2.50 $6.20 $5.00
Woods Cross $2.50 $2.00 $5.00 $4.00
North Temple $2.50 $2.00 $5.00 $4.00
Salt Lake $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00

So, combining gas prices and UTA fares, here would be the total cost per stop to get to my office:

From Station One-way 80% One-way Round Trip 80% Round Trip
Clearfield $4.77 $3.97 $9.55 $7.95
Layton $4.44 $3.74 $8.89 $7.49
Farmington $4.61 $4.01 $9.22 $8.02
Woods Cross $4.82 $4.32 $9.65 $8.65
North Temple $5.77 $5.27 $11.54 $10.54
Salt Lake $3.42 $3.42 $6.84 $6.84

It's clearly cheaper to drive all the way into the Salt Lake Central station, and take TRAX to the office, as that rail fare is in the "Free Zone", and no extra cost to me. However, if I don't want to drive all the way into Salt Lake, then driving to the Layton station 6.6 miles away is the most optimal.

I can't forget that once per week, I need to take TRAX up to the university to teach. This is a $5 round trip ticket, which is good for all destinations on TRAX, all day long, or $4 with FAREPAY. Including that into my final cost, what would my gas and UTA fare costs look like in 5-day work week? Per month? Per year? (Note: the "80%" headers show the cost of gas plus the 20% FAREPAY discount. It is not 80% of each total.)

From Station Weekly 80% Weekly Yearly 80% Yearly Monthly 80% Monthly
Clearfield $52.74 $43.74 $2,742.38 $2,274.38 $228.53 $189.53
Layton $49.45 $41.45 $2,571.17 $2,155.17 $214.26 $179.60
Farmington $51.12 $44.12 $2,658.08 $2,294.08 $221.51 $191.17
Woods Cross $53.24 $47.24 $2,768.45 $2,456.45 $230.70 $204.70
North Temple $62.72 $56.72 $3,261.21 $2,949.21 $271.77 $245.77
Salt Lake $39.18 $38.18 $2,037.47 $1,985.47 $169.79 $165.46

If I drove to the Salt Lake Central station 5 times per week, and paid for a round trip TRAX ticket to the university once per week, I'm looking at about $170 per month, or $165 with FAREPAY. If I take FrontRunner from my most cost-efficient station, it's $214 per month, or $180 per month with FAREPAY. From the closest station, I'm looking at $230 per month or $190 per month with FAREPAY. UTA charges $198 per month for a premium pass (which is required to use FrontRunner and express buses), which doesn't include my gas costs driving to each station.

$214 is over a 60% increase over commuting to work in my car (the FAREPAY discounts ends Dec 31, 2014), and $198 is almost a 50% increase. I will spend an extra $700 per year to the UTA for using their services. Over 10 years, that's almost half the cost of a base model Toyota Corolla, brand new. So, when purchasing a new car, if there are plans on using the UTA, realize that the cost of your new car went from $15,000 to $22,000.

As a frequent rider of the UTA system, watching people use their passes, gauging who is riding by dress, demeanor, and conversation, I would dare say that 80-85% of ridership is only riding FrontRunner and TRAX, because they have an education pass or their pass is paid for or reimbursed by their employer. This means that most people are riding the UTA, because they don't have to drive, and they're not paying for it personally, which is probably due to the astronomical fare prices. Of course, I don't have access to their ridership data, so this is just speculation based on observation while riding. I doubt I'm far off though.

I would like to say that the fare goes to quality services, buses, and trains, but it doesn't. The FrontRunner and TRAX stops have very little overhead protection from the sun and weather, and even fewer seats. The FrontRunner has three state-of-the-art Bombardier double-decker commuter cars, and 1 refurbished 1970s Comet car. Some TRAX trains are new, many are old and tattered. Service reliability is not great across the rail systems (I don't have any numbers, just personal experiences), and some stations are in need of repair (the Clearfield station was getting some tile replaced, but it's only half-finished, and has remained so for a few months, with no evidence of progress).

It is true that I don't have to deal with traffic jams on the freeway, but it has rarely taken me more than an hour to reach the office, even in the most deadlocked situation. I don't have to deal with bad weather driving, which is a bonus, and I can get work done while on the train, provided I can find a table to work on in the commuter car. Despite these benefits, I hardly think they are worth the extra $700 per year you will give the UTA for these luxuries, provided the setbacks of their infrastructure.

As a former resident of Toronto, Canada, the UTA fares are outrageous. I came from a city where fares are currently less than $135 per month for access to all TTC buses, street cars, light rail, and subways. The TTC rail stations are vastly superior to UTA stations, providing adequate overhead protection, generous seating, and are well-maintained. The system is much more reliable (I didn't experience a single delay in over two years) and the train cars are more up-to-date in a wider fashion. I wish I was familiar with other transit systems to compare, but the TTC is the only other transit system I'm deeply familiar with. Notice also that while an individual ride on the TTC might be $3, the monthly pass is $133. Compare to the UTA where a single ride is $2.50 and the monthly premium pass is $198 (it's true that the TTC does not include Go Transit, the long-distance commuter rail, and Go Transit does not offer discounts for TTC card holders, so this may not be exactly apples-to-apples).

I hope the UTA comes down considerably in price (about half), because when the University of Utah decides it doesn't want to pay the UTA for my transit pass, I'll be back on the road commuting in my car.

As a partial solution to reducing fares, aside from increasing the state gas tax, maybe the executive officers, directors, and managers of the Utah Transit Authority could take a pay cut. I'd wager that $511,000 puts the COO of the UTA in the top 1 or 2 percent of Utah salaries.

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