Aug 16, 2023 - Transit

How Utah is trying to make buses more viable

Illustration of a bus seen through the view of binoculars.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Across the West, cities have long made rail transit central to their efforts to address traffic congestion, pollution and rising gas costs in car-centric, sprawling metro areas.

  • But a new push for buses is taking shape as transportation leaders try to speed up routes and get more butts in the seats.

Yes, but: Along the Wasatch Front, bus expansion has been halting, with new "rapid" service launching amid sweeping cuts to existing local bus routes.

Driving the news: Transportation leaders increasingly are looking at a system called "bus rapid transit" (BRT), which aims to create bus routes closer to the capacity and speed of light rail — but at a far lower infrastructure cost.

  • Cities worldwide have tried dedicated bus lanes, intersection controls that forbid cars from turning into buses' paths, raised bus stops to expedite loading and unloading, and bigger buses to improve efficiency.

Zoom in: In Salt Lake County, a new BRT line called the Midvalley Connector is expected to be completed by 2025.

Catch up quick: The Utah Transit Authority has already created BRT lines in Utah and Weber counties in the last five years.

  • The newest route, Weber County's "OGX," launched this month after more than 20 years of planning and a price tag of about $120 million.
  • Each has offered free fares for their first three years of operation to entice riders.

What they're saying: "It is considerably less expensive to build, and it basically delivers most if not all of the same benefits [of rail]," UTA spokesperson Carl Arky told Axios. "It's fast. It's efficient. It's reliable."

Zoom out: Denver and Phoenix also are expanding BRT, with Denver's long-planned rapid bus route expected to open in 2027.

  • Transit officials in the Denver area are going big on free fares for existing routes and looking for other ways to boost lagging ridership.

The intrigue: In recent battles in Arizona's statehouse, conservatives found buses more politically palatable than light rail.

  • Republican lawmakers there banned cities in the Phoenix area from using a long-standing regional transportation sales tax on light rail, and generally opposed public transit, favoring highway expansion instead.
  • In a compromise, Republicans allowed bus funding, shifting the cities' focus toward BRT. A route is expected to launch there next year.

Reality check: Light rail is less controversial in Utah, with temperatures cooling after the first line was built in 1999.

  • The population here is more concentrated in a linear metro area and suburbs are geographically easier to serve with rail.

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