Last week, on U.S. News and World Report’s surprising list of the top 10 U.S. cities for public transportation, Salt Lake City beat out powerhouses, like New York City and Boston, for the number two spot, just behind Portland, Ore.
USN&WR talked with the city’s mayor, Ralph Becker, recently about why public transportation has been a success and how his city has reaped the benefits.
[The Utah Transit Authority is] a statewide agency that local governments opt into, with a sales tax option. It is the taxpayers, the voters, who vote on that contribution to transit, and as we’ve developed light rail, which really is now only 11 years old, people have seen how much they like it and want to use it and use it far beyond projections. They’ve been willing to go to the voting booths and increase taxes on themselves to speed up the development of our rail transit system.
It wasn’t easy though. A ballot measure to increase sales taxes to pay for light rail failed in the early nineties, but the city went ahead with the project anyway.
From the day it opened, though, it has been a big hit. People, including people who were initially opposed, are just clamoring for that rail system to be built to their communities.
Since then, it has continued to be successful. In addition to existing light rail, bus-rapid transit, and commuter rail, the city will add a streetcar along with 70 miles of rail to its existing 64 miles, by 2015. But along with residents who are willing to raise taxes for greater transportation options, it doesn’t hurt that they have a mayor who understands why public transportation is important.
The key to transit is that it be convenient and accessible, and that means there needs to be regular enough service and you need to be able to get there quickly enough. … If we can build a transit system that helps relieve congestion, that helps relieve the need to build very expensive parking, that helps relieve air quality issues we face in the [Salt Lake] Valley and reduce our carbon footprint, all of those things provide for the kind of lifestyle that people want today. In my mind, a good transit system is going to be a key in this transforming time to having the kinds of communities we want.
And the mayor isn’t exaggerating when he says it’s the kind of lifestyle people want. A recent poll found that Americans overwhelmingly want more transportation options and updated infrastructure, they just don’t want to foot the bill. But if we look to Salt Lake City as an example, once a convenient and reliable transportation is in place — and people can see the benefits — they’ll be more likely to spend the money.