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Report: commuter rail ridership in Utah increasing

By Brady Mccombs - Associated Press - | Mar 10, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY — Lacey Brown of Ogden hops on a commuter rail train called the “Frontrunner” five days a week and travels about 40 miles south to Salt Lake City for a massage apprenticeship.

Even though it takes her more time, Brown says it’s worth it because the $220 she spends on monthly train tickets is far less than what it would cost to make the one-hour drive to and from her house.

“It’s more affordable to live out in Ogden,” Brown said Monday. “So, to have the opportunity to travel and live affordably makes my day a lot better.”

Brown is among a growing group of Utah residents relying on public transit to get around the Salt Lake City area.

Between light rail, commuter rail lines and buses, there were an all-time high 44 million rides on Utah Transit Authority transportation lines in 2013 — a 36-percent increase from a decade ago, according to data reported by transit systems nationally and released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association

Utah residents are not alone in their burgeoning affinity for public transportation. The report shows Americans are boarding public buses, trains and subways in greater numbers than any time since the suburbs began booming, with nearly 10.7 billion trips in 2013, the highest total since 1956. The numbers show transit ridership fully recovered from a dip caused by the Great Recession.

Ridership of the commuter rail lines Brown uses in Utah doubled in 2013 to 3.8 million trips, marking the largest percentage increase in the country. Nationally, travel on commuter rails increased by 2 percent, the report shows.

The growth was spurred by the opening of a new 45-mile line of the “Frontrunner” from Salt Lake City to Provo in December 2012. It extended a line that has gone the same distance north just past Ogden since 2008.

The Provo extension was one of four new lines Utah Transit Authority has opened in the past two years.

The light rail system added three lines in 2013: A 6-mile stretch to Salt Lake City International Airport that opened in April; a 3.8-mile line to the southern Salt Lake City suburb of Draper that opened in August; and a street car connecting light rail to the Sugar House neighborhood in Salt Lake City.

“It’s unprecedented in my memory to have four openings in one year like they did,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy with the American Public Transportation Association. “That is remarkable to have that kind of progress in a community, and that kind of project delivery.”

Utah Transit Authority is recognized around the country for what it’s done to create the grid of public transit in the Salt Lake City area, Guzzetti said.

The Salt Lake City area features one of the more developed systems of public transportation in the West with a wide-reaching rail system that has been built over 15 years and several phases. Some of it was expedited ahead of the 2002 Winter Olympics. It’s been paid for by a combination of local, state and federal funding.

The Brookings Institution recently determined it’s convenient for about 65 percent of commuters in its service territory, more than any other U.S. metro area. That’s due, in part, to geography. Utah is largely a rural state of high mountains, deep canyons and vast deserts, which has concentrated 2 million people along the Wasatch Front.

Buses remain the most-used form of public transportation in Utah, but the 19.4 million riders last year were actually an 8 percent decrease from the previous year.

Utah residents rode the “TRAX” light rail more often in 2013 with ridership increasing by 6 percent to 18.7 million trips. Nationally, ridership on light rails went up 1.5 percent.

Jason Shumaker, of Salt Lake City, uses the light rail nearly every day traveling to and from his work in the suburb of Sandy, about 20 miles south. He also uses the “Frontrunner” commuter rail line when he needs to go to Ogden.

“It’s clean, it’s reliable, it’s efficient,” said Shumaker on Monday, holding a bike he takes with him on the train. “A big push this year is to clean our air and a big portion of that is solution is public transportation.”

Ardith Levinthal of Brigham City, Utah, rides the commuter train to come to doctor’s appointments and to babysit her young grandson in Salt Lake City. Her children pick her up from the train station.

“It saves time, money and energy,” Levinthal said.

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Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs

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