Utah Transit Authority

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Motor Bus Society
By Van C. Wilkins and Eli Bail

(Digitally scanned from Motor Coach Age, Volume 40, Number 10, October 1988)

Utah Transit Authority Formed

The Utah Transit Authority was formed on March 3, 1970 and took over Salt Lake City Lines on August 10. Enabling legislation had been enacted in 1969, and in the beginning Salt Lake City, Murray, South Salt Lake, and Sandy voters approved establishment of the authority. All of these places are within Salt Lake County, the most populous county in the state.

The initial UTA fleet consisted of 68 buses acquired from Salt Lake City Lines, 40 of which were TDH-5103's built in 1950-51 and recently arrived from Los Angeles. The newest buses were TDH-4517's built in 1962. The authority moved this equipment out of the former carbarn dating from the Harriman days into temporary quarters north of Salt Lake City and announced plans to acquire and refurbish a former truck terminal on West 2nd South, near the center of town, for use as a maintenance base.

Bus service under public ownership thus began with a fleet averaging 16 years of age and with makeshift maintenance facilities. More important, there was no assured source of the funds that were sorely needed to put daily operations and routine maintenance back on a sound basis. Patronage was about 3 million in 1970, or 10,000 per day in a city of over 600,000 people, down from about 12 million a decade earlier.

Repainting of the new-look buses in a scheme of light blue and white with a red belt rail was begun in order to emphasize the change in ownership and management. The Utah Transit Authority was constituted as both an owning and operating agency and did not hire a transit management company to conduct its operations. John A. Rankin was the first UTA general manager. Using some of the federal capital grant money obtained to buy City Lines, the authority ordered six GM T6H4521A's and began rehabilitation of the future maintenance base during 1971.

Some adjustments were made to the Salt Lake City Lines pattern of service, the most noteworthy being abandonment of Rt 5 beyond 33rd South to Sandy effective June 1, 1971. Although residents there had voted to establish the transit authority, the municipality then decided not to join. Service had been on an hourly basis beyond 33rd South and had consisted of a single bus serving two branches south of Murray, running to Midvale and Sandy in turn.

On June 6, 1972, which was the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of public transit in Salt Lake City, the new $500,000 maintenance facility at 616 West 2nd South was opened with public ceremonies. Adequate at the time, the former truck terminal would be outgrown within four years; but almost 10 years were to pass before maintenance facilities would again be sufficient to support the system.

A Revised Route Network

During July 1972 another 17 new GM's were added to the fleet, and on October 9, 1972 a revised system of routes was put in place. Whoever designed the new network must have had a sense of history, for some of the lines had their traditional Utah Light & Traction route numbers restored. Once again, as before 1947, numbers referred to destinations, not routes, so that buses on through-routed lines displayed one number in one direction and another in the other direction.

There were a number of route changes made at the same time. Route names and new numbers were as follows:

Rts 1 and 2, operated as a loop just as in the past, were through-routed with 6. Rt 3 was linked to Rts 16 and 17, Rt 4 with Rt 9, Rts 5 and 7 with 12 and 25, Rt 10 with 19 and 20, Rt 11 with Rt 21, and a few early and late 13's and 14's with 23. Other routes operated independently and were not through-routed.

On the busier lines (3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12, and the common portion of 16 and 17), midday headways were 20 minutes, but not every trip was operated to the end of the line. Most routes had half-hourly base headways, and some ran hourly. The route structure established in 1972 essentially remains in place today, though many more routes have been added and there have been some minor deletions and adjustments.

Financial Aid Voted

In spite of several attempts to secure a dependable source of subsidy money, there was no success until 1973. In that year the legislature authorized payment of funds from the profits of the state liquor monopoly to counties that had transit districts. The legislature also voted to permit an increase in local property taxes to be used to aid mass transit, subject to approval by the voters within the district. However, strong opposition to any increase in property taxes killed that potential revenue source.

To the north of Salt Lake County in the Wasatch Valley lie Davis and Weber (pronounced WEE-ber) Counties, including in Weber the major city of Ogden. The region between Salt Lake City and Ogden, the traditional territory of Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines and before that the Bamberger Railroad, has been subject to a serious case of urban sprawl and today houses many who commute to work in the two cities. In November 1973 voters in both counties elected to join the Utah Transit Authority, which meant that the authority became responsible for most ofthe transit service for 750,000 people, about 70 per cent of the population of the entire state.

Ogden Companies Acquired

On August 1, 1974, using $195,000 from a federal grant, the Utah Transit Authority acquired Ogden Bus Lines, Metro Transportation Inc., and Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines from the Bank of Utah, trustee for the estate of John Yeamen, who had died in 1972. The transaction included operating rights and 39 GM diesel buses. A bus renumbering list was prepared on paper and called for 36 of the acquired buses to become 2001-2036, generally in batches by type; there were TDM-4507's, TDH4509's, TDH-4512's, TDM-4515's, TDH-5103's, and several parlor coach models. Before the end of 1974, however, seven of 54 new AM Generals had been assigned to what became UTA's North Division, and it is likely that some of the buses intended to be renumbered never actually were.

Following the takeover, local service was established between Ogden and West Ogden, where Lake Shore had once run some trips as part of its through service. It was announced that Salt Lake City-Ogden service would operate at a 90-minute headway, but would not run evenings or Sundays.

Sales Tax for Transit

In 1974 another funding plan had been adopted by the Utah legislature, this calling for an increase of 0.25 per cent in the sales tax with the proceeds to be used for transit purposes, if voters in the district approved. This idea met with a warmer reception. A provision in the bill as originally adopted required that no fares be charged if the sales tax increase was approved, but this was later made optional and in fact was never actually instituted. However, the possibility that transit rides might one day be free became a perennial issue after that.

Salt Lake County and Weber County voters approved the sales tax increase in November 1974, but Davis County turned it down. As a result, fares were reduced to 15 cents in Salt Lake and Weber Counties at the beginning of 1975, giving those parts of UTA along with Atlanta's MARTA system the lowest transit fares in the country. Davis County fares remained unchanged.

In addition, four new routes were started in Salt Lake County and four in Ogden on January 6, 1975. In Salt Lake, new service included resumption of operations to Sandy as Rt 24, a new line serving the southeastern suburbs and the University of Utah (29), and crosstown routes on 21st South (30) and 33rd South (31). Operation of buses on these two east-west streets was nothing new, as there had been service east of State Street for many years, but as part of the radial pattern of routes centered on the central business district. The two new routes, however, also ran west of State Street and did not go downtown.

New routes for Ogden were 22nd Street, McKay-Dee Hospital, St Benedict's Hospital via 28th Street, and South Ogden via Jefferson Avenue.

Shortly thereafter, probably in March 1975, the Utah Transit Authority initiated an additional four new bus lines serving Salt Lake City's south and southeast suburbs. New Rt 32-Cottonwood Heights and 33-White City were in effect lengthy extensions of Rt 10 to the southeastern suburbs of those names. Shuttle Rt 40 met Rt 25 at Midvale and ran to West Sandy, while Rt 61 served Redwood Road south from 47th South (Utah Technical College), running through West Jordan and South Jordan to Riverton (128th South).

Probably at the same time the system's first park-and-ride service began. Designated Rt 60, it linked the parking lot of the K-Mart store in Bountiful with downtown Salt Lake City and charged a premium fare. After a slow start, park-and-ride service has become widespread, and today 24 Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) churches as well as other locations allow use of their parking lots during the week.

Introduction of the 15-cent fare resulted in an immediate increase in patronage of about 10 per cent, with increases up to 40 per cent being recorded on some lines (such as the 9, 10, and 11). By the end of the first month, traffic was up 35 per cent in Salt Lake City and 34 per cent in Ogden as more people found out where the buses ran. April showed an increase of 71 per cent system-wide over April 1974.

Patronage exceeded 600,000 in May and then leveled off at about 550,000 per month, roughly twice the typical monthly total in the previous year. At half the former fare, income from the farebox fell from 50 per cent of operating expenses in 1974 to 24 per cent in 1975.

Free of the need to earn a profit or even to bring in its out-of-pocket costs, transit in Salt Lake City and Ogden entered a euphoric period. Although obvious problems remained to be solved, the daily papers were full of articles praising the new bus services, new equipment, and most of all the low fare.

West Valley Service

South of North Temple Street the new 21st South crosstown line was the only UTA route to reach west of Redwood Road. This meant that a sizable portion of western Salt Lake County, with a population of perhaps 100,000, was paying the increased sales tax but had no UTA bus service. Some people threatened court action to have the sales tax reduced to its former level.

The transit authority was unable to extend service into the west valley immediately because Lewis Brothers Stages held a franchise to provide transit service west of Redwood Road. Lewis Brothers Stages traced its operation to 1913 and operated an extensive charter business, along with some trucks. Charter service to ski resorts and to Nevada, along with a regular winter run to Park City, were important. The firm also ran three buses in a suburban service that carried about 100 people a day; this line reached outside Salt Lake County to Tooele.

Utah Transit Authority offered Lewis Brothers Stages $35,000 for the operating rights on the Tooele route. Company president Joseph Lewis asked for $369,962, apparently basing his price in part on operating losses he had suffered during the past 12 years. While the authority considered the matter, Lewis Brothers Stages offered to expand service at cost plus 10 per cent or to operate under a contract for UTA's per-mile cost in other areas, or as another alternative to allow UTA to run buses over its route on a royalty basis.

Pending agreement on a price, and considering the public agitation, it was agreed that UTA would begin operating west of Redwood Road on March 3, 1975, and on that date five new routes requiring 11 buses were put into operation. Rts 34 and 35 ran to Granger and Kearns via different routes, 36 served Hunter, 37 Magna, and 38 Tooele. Salt Lake County riders paid 15 cents, but the fare from Tooele to Salt Lake City was set at $1. Previously, Lewis Brothers Stages had charged $2.24.

It was finally necessary to resort to binding arbitration to determine the price that the transit authority would pay Lewis Brothers Stages to give up its franchise, and months were to pass before the decision came down: the sum finally paid was $25,000, less than the authority's original offer.

Also in March 1975 all bus service was taken off Main Street between South Temple and 3rd South in order to permit reconstruction of the street. Main Street was reopened to bus traffic on December 15th, with bus stops relocated to mid-block and passenger shelters provided.

Sunday service was restored with the advent of fall schedules in September 1975; it had been discontinued during the final months of Salt Lake City Lines. Sixteen buses were required to cover 25 Salt Lake City routes on Sundays, with nine buses running in Ogden. Evening service, which had stopped at 7:30 in Ogden and 10:30 in Salt Lake City, was extended to midnight.

More Service Expansion

Voters in Davis County, between Salt Lake City and Ogden, had rejected the sales tax increase, and the county had continued to pay for its meager UTA bus service with what remained of its allocation from liquor funds. Faced with the loss of this source of subsidization, voters approved the sales tax increase in November 1975, and the transit authority needed to promise and then plan expanded service in that county as well.

Fifteen small Flxibles had been delivered during 1975, earmarked for the Ogden local lines. and some of these werediverted to Davis County when the 15-cent fare was introduced there on January 1, 1976. Meanwhile, it was clear that continuing service improvements would be possible only with a substantially enlarged fleet, and 203 new buses had been ordered for 1976 delivery, to be added to a fleet only about half that size.

Considering the public and political pressure for free bus service ever since the sales tax legislation was approved, it is interesting that when the first free service appeared in the region, it was not UTA that provided it. Lewis Brothers Stages reached an agreement with resorts and merchants in Park City that its seasonal service would be free to riders, the cost being covered by an 0.5 per cent gross receipts tax levied within Park City. Free rides began during the 1975-76 winter season.

The transit authority board approved the provision of free transportation to people over 65 at its meeting on December 17, 1975. The privilege was later extended to the handicapped as well. Furthermore, a new downtown shuttle service at a 10-cent fare was approved at the same time. Two buses circled a 24-block area every 10 minutes, much as Salt Lake City Lines 4008's in special paint schemes had done in 1967. It wag determined that 1500 riders a day would have to be carried for the shuttle to break even. Patronage turned out to be about 200 per day, and the service was discontinued at the end of March 1976.

"Ski Bus" Service

At that same meeting, the UTA board authorized establishment of shuttle bus service between the Snowbird and Alta ski resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon at a 25-cent fare. The authority wished to start regular seasonal routes to these and other resorts, and negotiations were in process with Salt Lake Transportation Co. seeking to acquire its franchises over those routes and also between downtown Salt Lake City and the airport, where Salt Lake City Lines had operated until 1947.

Salt Lake Transportation Co., in addition to these regular routes, also held the Gray Line sightseeing franchise for Salt Lake City and operated charter service. During 1976 the regular-route operating rights of Salt Lake Transportation Co. wereacquired by the Utah Transit Authority for $86,000, leading to the inauguration of UTA Rt 50 to the airport and as a side benefit to the restoration of the old North Redwood Road route (18). Specifications for 40 of 83 AM Generals on order were changed to include special brakes, heavy-duty transmissions, two-way radios, snow tires, and ski racks to provide service on several planned "ski bus" routes.

Routes to the ski areas in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood Canyons from the airport, downtown hotels, universities, and suburban shopping malls today constitute a popular UTA service used by both skiers and resort employees. The bus operation is strongly supported by the resort operators, to the extent that 32 new buses purchased in 1984 with "ski bus" equipment were partly paid for by the ski resorts themselves.

The transit authority wanted to discontinue its contract operation from Brigham City in Box Elder County (north of Ogden) to Thiokol Chemical and Hill Air Force Base, the former Metro Transportation routes, but the Thiokol employees agreed to a fare increase while the Hill AFB service was dropped as of January 30, 1976.

Also discontinued, probably during 1976, was the Tooele route, said to be losing money at the rate of $40,000 a year. Every UTA route was "losing money" in a sense, but of course there was no subsidization from Tooele County to help out.

Problems of Rapid Expansion

By June 1976 deliveries of the 203 new buses were under way, and plans were in hand for major service expansions in all parts of the system; over 30 new routes were planned for Salt Lake County, for example. Arrival of the new buses, however, brought to a head a problem that was to have a substantial impact on the entire UTA operation over the next five years: there was no place to put them.

Temporary storage arrangements were made at the State Fairgrounds for the new GM 5307's and AM Generals. The former truck terminal and unpaved open lot on West 2nd South, never designed to handle buses in the first place, was barely capable of taking care of 100 buses and would be hopelessly inadequate to deal with more than twice that number. The situation in Ogden was better, but not ideal.

This is not to say that the Utah Transit Authority board or management had overlooked or ignored the pending problem. Rather, they were victims of the "not in my backyard" syndrome. The need for new garage facilities was obvious, and efforts had been made to secure a suitable site, but the likely effects of noise and bus traffic on the local environment at each proposed location were sufficient to rouse political opposition. Meantime, the 70-year-old former carbarn on 7th East had been redeveloped into a shopping and entertainment complex known as "Trolley Square" and of course was unavailable.

In effect, delivery of more than 200 new buses gave the authority a reprieve, allowing retirement of ex-Salt Lake City Lines equipment which needed frequent maintenance because of its age and substituting new buses needing less attention. Before the problem had been solved, general manager Rankin retired and was replaced in April 1977 by John C. Pingree. Rankin had built a virtually moribund system into a thriving operation carrying over 14 million riders a year.

Riding continued to grow as new services were added and headways were improved. By 1978, the new buses began tc need more maintenance work. UTA had leased lots and garages scattered around Salt Lake City, but parts supplies were inadequate and not well controlled, and poor shop facilities greatly hindered proper care.

As more and more buses had to be held in for work that could be performed only slowly if at all, runs began to be cancelled and road calls became more frequent. Tires and brakes caused the most serious problems; drivers complained to the press of being forced to take defective buses out on the street. Mechanics said that parts were often not available, and were also of poor quality. At one point it was reported that one third of the UTA fleet was out of service because of maintenance problems. Morale was low, and employee turnover reached an annual rate of 30 per cent, causing further difficulties.

Late in 1978, in response to public and political pressure, r formal preventive maintenance program was adopted and the position of Director of Maintenance was upgraded to report directly to the general manager instead of to the Director of Operations. More mechanics were hired. A service reduction of about 4 per cent overall was announced in December, with "skibus" runs being cut by 30 per cent, and vans were leased to provide service on some lightly traveled routes.

With morale and wages both low, labor problems were to be expected. When the UTA's contract with Division 382 of the Amalgamated Transit Union expired without agreement on new terms in November 1976, the employees had remained on the job for several months until details of a new contract were settled. This was not the case two years later. Working without a contract after November 1978, the membership rejected three proposed agreements and then staged a "sick-out" and subsequently a five-day wildcat strike in February 1979, closing down bus service in all three counties. A new three-year contract was finally signed on March 19.

At length a site for a new garage and shop was found in the Meadowbrook area at 3546 South 7th West, large enough to provide an operations center and administrative headquarters. Covered parking was to be provided for 250 buses, each having its assigned space. Construction began in the summer of 1979. Meantime the gravity of the situation had become apparent outside Salt Lake City. When the authority applied for a federal grant to buy additional buses, UMTA's response was that the funds would not be approved until the new Meadowbrook garage was at least 80 per cent complete.

Second-Hand Buses

During 1979 the second gasoline shortage of the decade was developing, and the Utah Transit Authority decided to buy a fleet of second-hand buses to maintain service while its own maintenance program was catching up. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority sold 25 GM TDH-4517's to UTA for $11,000 apiece, the authority budgeting their reconditioning at another $9000 each.

These began to enter service early in 1980 sporting a new paint scheme which was also applied to other buses in the fleet at that time. The new scheme was an overall white with a gray skirt (as in Washington) and with a red over white over dark blue belt stripe incorporating the letters "UTA" near the front. The ex-Washington buses did not last long in Salt Lake City, all being sold by the end of 1981.

A test of free rides for all during off-peak hours was carried out in October 1979. Initially the experiment was reported to have attracted 16 per cent more riders, but later the increase was said to have been only 3 per cent. Proponents of free transit immediately called for a longer test.

Instead, with the farebox contributing less than 10 per cent of operating expenses, the Utah Transit Authority restored the 30-cent fare effective February 1, 1980. Senior citizens and the handicapped were charged 15 cents, and the premium fare on express and subscription (contract) routes was 50 cents. The service area was divided into five fare zones, with the base fare good through two of them; thus a three-zone ride was 60 cents, four zones 90 cents. Zone 1 was that part of Salt Lake Countybelow 72nd South, zone 2 the rest of Salt Lake County, zones 3 and 4 Davis County, and zone 5 Weber County.

With construction of the Meadowbrook complex moving forward, the UTA once again applied for federal funds to assist in the purchase of new buses. Intitially, orders for 24 GMD "new-looks" and 100 U.S.-built advanced-design buses were proposed in order to compare the operating costs; instead 50 T6H5307N's were purchased from GMD in Canada.

Unquestionably the biggest cost saving connected with these was their lack of air conditioning, and in recent years UTA has been removing defunct air-conditioning units from buses originally delivered with air conditioning. The 5307's were followed by 39 GMD "Classics" in 1983 and by 63 more in 1984, making UTA until recently the largest operator of "Classics" in the United States.

Service in Utah County

The cities of Orem and Provo are in Utah County to the south of Salt Lake County, and Provo is the location of Brigham Young University. In 1978 the voters of both cities decisively rejected a ballot proposal to join the Utah Transit Authority, instead approving formation of the Timpanogos Transit Authority to subsidize local service offered by Provo City Lines on a single route. Without the extra 0.25 per cent sales tax, however, public support was modest.

By 1984 the UTA system had put most of its problems behind it, and when the question was again put to the Utah County voters in that year the sales tax increase and UTA operation were both approved. UTA assigned 24 of the 1981-model T6H-5307N's to the Orem-Provo operation and established five local lines plus a Salt Lake City-Orem-Provo express via Interstate 15, which runs about every hour throughout the day, less often in the evenings.

Service in Utah County was inaugurated on September 1, 1985, and as of that date the Utah Transit Authority served the four most populous counties in the state, reaching an estimated 80 per cent of the labor force. By that time too, the fare was up to 40 cents in off-peak periods and 50 cents at rush hours.

Utah Transit Authority Today (1988)

Experience with the successful Meadowbrook garage was applied to construction of the similar but smaller Mount Ogden garage serving the Northern Division, which was opened in August 1986 at a cost of $8.5 million. Both garages have been equipped with waste-oil heating units, which provide heat for the maintenance areas. Renovation of the Central Division in downtown Salt Lake City followed and included acquisition of additional property to provide proper storage and maintenance for 80 buses.

As of December 1985 there were 396 buses and 16 vans in the UTA fleet, of which 27 buses and one of the vans were inactive; these included the last six 4523's, 20 AM Generals, and one ex Metro Transportation (originally Western Greyhound Lines) TDM-4515 being restored as a museum piece. Meadowbrook housed 190 buses, the Northern Division had 66, the Central Division 89, Provo 24, and Davis County 15 Ford vans.

(The restored UTA bus, a GM TDM4515, serial 026, was built May 1954 as Northwest Greyhound Lines Y211; sold to Metro Transportation, Inc., for service in Ogden, Utah; sold to UTA in 1974 when UTA took over the routes of Metro Transportation. It was numbered as Metro Transportation no. 118, and given UTA number 2015 in 1974.)

A "No Fare Square" has been established in downtown Salt Lake City, perhaps resolving the issue of free transportation atleast for the present. Riders board and alight through either door on all buses anywhere within a 15-square-block area bounded by North and West Temple Streets, 4th South, and 2nd East. Riders outbound from this area pay as they leave.

On close-in routes base headways remain at the traditional 20 or 30 minutes; no scheduled headway is less than 20 minutes, even during peak hours. Farther out, hourly service is typical. Sunday service is provided on only two regular routes, Salt Lake City-Ogden (local) and Salt Lake City-Airport, and to the ski resorts in season.

UTA also operates the "Brigham Street Trolley" connecting downtown hotels with Trolley Square and the Triad Center every 15 minutes at a 35-cent fare. Eight Chance "Alamo City Streetcars" are used on this route. Half of the local matching funds for five of them was provided by the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency, and the other three were purchased outright by Triad America Corp., which developed Triad Center, a complex of offices, restaurants, and shops. Triad America has guaranteed all operating expenses on the route for a period of 10 years. Because Salt Lake City winters can be severe, the open section of each "streetcar" has been enclosed with thick clear plastic panels.

The Utah Transit Authority appears to have put the problems of the 1970's behind it. On-time performance is now reported to be 95 per cent. Buses are clean and appear to be well maintained. Labor relations are better.

Foreseeing increased demand, UTA planners anticipate that the bus fleet may grow to 450 buses within a few years. There is talk about a light rail line or busway using existing railroad rights-of-way, but given the current state of federal funding this seems unlikely. Annual riding is between 17 and 18 million and is once again on the increase. This time, though, UTA seems ready.


Research by Van Wilkins, assisted by Cecil O. Sharp II of the Salt Lake City library, Lynn Tilfort of UTA, Russell Powers, and Stanley F.X. Worris. Edited by Eli Bail.