The long and winding road that leads to downtown's door may never disappear, but you may need a transfer to get here.
Remember the excitement back in August when Utah Transit Authority launched its two new light rail extensions to Daybreak and West Valley? It caught many downtown TRAX riders by surprise because, if they were traveling east/west from the intermodal hub through downtown to the U of U, they found out they had to get off the train and transfer at the Courthouse station.
So what, you say. Folks coming in from Sandy have long had to transfer to the U. And unless riders are coming from South Jordan, most still do need to transfer. Into every multi-line transit system, a transfer must fall. That's what UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter says.
Still, if you live in Sandy, a transfer as compared to putting 30 miles a day on your car, finding a parking place and risking your life on the freeway is not the worst tradeoff in the world.
For downtowners, however, a transfer is a death blow to ridership. Downtowners have long had a sense of pride in the east/west route. It was there for them, every quarter hour or so, and they were there for it. Many of those living in the downtown/university neighborhoods worked or studied at the U and enjoyed unlimited riding using their transit passes. They shopped for groceries, frequented their favorite restaurants and clubs, attended festivals and concerts -- all while TRAX squired them around.
Even though many knew that buses could get them downtown faster, they walked or rode their bikes to a TRAX stop and waited for a train. Why? Because it was a cool, 21st-century ride. Intuitive. Dependable. No need to squat on a curb and gaze expectantly down the street, waiting for a bus that may or may not be running on time.
But what now?
For downtowners traveling the relatively close distances across town who consider getting off at the soulless Courthouse station and then wait for another train ... sorry, it's just easier to drive.
Downtown residents who decide not to take transit affects not only UTA, but businesses along the way. Now the train traveling along 400 South is likely to be full of South Valley commuters who have no interest in getting off at the library to hear a reading by a guest author or see an art-house flick at the Broadway.
As more of downtown rises and with the City Creek mall opening in March, those Sandy folks who want to come downtown once or twice for the spectacle will have it made -- they've got a direct route. The downtown/university residents -- the ones most likely to patronize the mall on a regular basis -- will be driving there because of that infernal transfer. Thankfully, City Creek will have 5,000 parking places.
UTA's Carpenter says he hears us. He's fielded the calls and complaints. Still, he claims the new lines are carrying the numbers they'd hoped for. More people than ever are leaving their cars at home and taking mass transit, which is the goal of mass transit. Plus, he urges downtowners not to lose heart because once the airport TRAX line comes on line, there may be some massaging of the route.
Bottom line, though, UTA's focus is not downtown-centric. Being sensitive as we are to the one-step forward, two-steps back motion of downtown development, it seems obvious that downtown advocates were asleep at the switch when this reconfiguration went through. Carpenter insists all the major players were at the table, and UTA made its decision based on simple ridership arithmetic.
Since, any day now, the downtown free-fare zone on UTA buses (not TRAX trains) is going away and since Salt Lake City fathers are, as we speak, devising ways to hike downtown street parking fees, maybe the Courthhouse TRAX transfer will come to be seen as the lesser of many evils in terms of getting to and around downtown.
But, still, you gotta wonder if downtown will ever catch a break.