Audit of Salt Lake City Transit: Fraud or Mistakes?

COST note: The following article was published in The Antiplanner, Transportation Section. Some of these audit findings are consistent with past audit findings and facts about Austin’s Capital Metro Transit Agency and some are good predictions of the future if Austiin pursues passenger rail stategies they are now spending millions of taxpayer dollars to plan.

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:

• UTA has systematically overestimated light-rail ridership by about 20 percent (i)
• Bus ridership is so low that the service is less efficient than other transit agencies (i)
• While light rail may emit less air pollution than cars, the buses “create so much air pollution that they negate any gains in air quality created by light rail.” (ii)

The auditor also had several other interesting remarks:

• UTA executive salaries are high compared to those of other transit agencies and should be reduced (i)
• Farebox revenues cover only 17 percent of operating costs, which is below average (ii)
• UTA expects to spend $11 billion on new transit projects in the next 23 years (i)
• To get voter support for that funding, UTA released information just before an election that later turned out to be false (37)
• UTA has made “poor use of internal auditors” (ii)

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.

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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