Public Transportation Key to Transforming Communities

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker talks about his city's investment in transit.

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The combination of suburban sprawl, growing populations, and an ever-increasing reliance on automobiles has made for nightmarish commutes in many U.S. cities. To combat the gridlock, some cities are investing in new ways to move residents from point A to point B. Since taking office in 2008, Salt Lake City's Democratic Mayor Ralph Becker has helped push for greater transit options in his city. As a result, a major expansion of the area's light rail system, as well as the introduction of streetcars to the city, are currently underway. He recently talked to U.S. News about why his city has invested so heavily in improving transit, and what a successful public transportation system looks like. Excerpts:

[See a slide show of the 10 Best Cities for Public Transportation.]

What makes Salt Lake City's transit system a success?

Our entrepreneurial approach to developing transit and the cooperative approach we've had for transit development has enabled an enormous leapfrogging kind of development of transit. Some of it is the way our transit agency is set up. [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. I think that is happening in other places, but the pace here has been quite extraordinary. And a lot the credit goes to our transit agency--for developing projects on time, on budget, and for providing a very solid service for the amount of money they get.

What has inspired Salt Lake City's investments in transit?

In some respects, it's very similar to what you've seen around the country. In the early nineties, the UTA put on the ballot a referendum to increase sales tax for developing light rail in the Salt Lake valley. It failed. [But] the transit authority looked at experiences from around the country and said, "We know this is going to work here, so even without the tax increase, we're going to go ahead and make the investment to put in the first rail line."

Like in most places, we had people who were big critics, saying it was a waste of money, it was a boondoggle, everything you hear that relates to large capital investments by governments. 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.

How has the recession affected public transit in your city?

[It has affected us] to a certain extent, but not in a significant way. The way it's affected us is that we've got a commitment to build 70 miles of rail by 2015. We were on pace to actually do it faster than that. But because revenues have slowed down, they've slowed down the construction pace a bit. But it hasn't changed the overall goal for all those projects moving forward.

[See a slide show of 10 cities adopting smart grid technology.]

How have you seen public transit affect other areas of life in your city?

Having a good transit system is what gives people options for ways to get around. We're never going to be able to compete with the automobile for convenience to the individual to be able to go wherever you want, whenever you want. But 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. A transit system isn't necessarily different from a road system. You've got freeways to carry high volumes, but you've [also] got high-speed rail, commuter rail, or in our case here, light rail to carry volumes of people quickly. And then for access through the community, you've got other modes--whether it's a streetcar system or light rail or buses--to sort of match the street or travel patterns. 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.