Monday, January 19, 2015

BRT Will Put Us In A (Pot) Hole

There is an uproar building in Utah County over BRT, the Bus Rapid Transit system being pushed — some say shoved — through the county approval process. People stood in lines at the County Commissioners’ meeting on Jan. 13 to speak their minds about BRT. Commissioner Larry Ellertson tried twice to end the discussion but residents of Pleasant Grove, Alpine, Saratoga Springs, Lehi, Springville, Provo, Orem and Salem continued to speak. They are, and should be, concerned about BRT; this is not just a Provo-Orem issue.

Two new commissioners, Bill Lee and Greg Graves, took their maiden voyage at this meeting. Both campaigned on fiscal responsibility and one, Greg Graves, on an anti-BRT stance. Mr. Lee kept his promise and jumped into the BRT fray. Are previous commitments to the project binding, and what would be needed to get us out of it? At his request, that information will be forthcoming at a future meeting. Mr. Graves remained largely silent, except for a few conciliatory statements on BRT, some of which seemed inconsistent with his campaign promises.
Valid objections were raised, drawing repeated applause from the 60-plus in attendance. Of the 15 or so who commented, only one favored mass transit. Their involvement was refreshing. Residents are studying the issue and getting active — the recipe for self-government and freedom.
What are the objections? BRT is unwise. BYU students will favor the university’s five free shuttle routes just announced for fall 2015. Double buses with accordion waistlines — monstrous things on Provo’s gentle streets — will travel every 5 minutes in peak times; the rest of the time they will surely be largely, wastefully empty, just as current buses are. And why are we partnering with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), with its fiscal and management woes?
Residents objected to the county government being involved in a free enterprise issue. Transportation isn’t the county’s business. Cancel BRT, spare us the debt and risk, and let private enterprise meet the need. That’s what America is about. We’ll get something cheaper and better. Where do you find BRT in either the state or national Constitutions? BRT reeks of caretaker government and we don’t want that in Utah County.
The biggest objections were about dollars and cents. Is this project so important that we want to break the piggy bank over it — an 11 mile bus route that 73 percent of us, according to a September Daily Herald survey, won’t ever use? The feds will fund half of the $150 million price tag. Our share is $75 million, $65 million of which will max out our credit and still leave us $10 million short. Will pocket change cover that? We will pay for the $65 million in bonds for 20 years. Do smart people go way over budget for two decades for something most of them won’t use? What happens if, in an emergency, we need money and can’t borrow it because we used up all our credit? In addition, the interest on $75 million is ugly.
The previous county commissioners, Ellertson, Doug Witney and Gary Anderson, had a plan to cover the details. Have they heard: “The best laid plans of mice and men have often gone astray?” (Robert Burns) Similar projects elsewhere produced haunting cost overruns. Cities such as Pittsburg, Honolulu, and Cleveland have lost their gamble with BRT and now cover its costs from sales and payroll taxes says a University of Oregon study. If this BRT goes over budget, the funds in your pocket will stop the hemorrhage. Rising prices and Pollyanna pre-planning often mess with the bottom line. In fact, what is the bottom line? The Daily Herald reported on Sept. 4 that the plans for BRT were only 35 percent complete. How can costs be final when the plans aren’t?
Commissioner Ellertson promised that BRT would pay for itself. How can he know that? This project will follow a route that exists now, not a new route to collect new passengers, and we know that 3,000 people ride this route every day. Commission reports say 13,000-15,000 will ride it on the BRT. Really? Will better seats, faster travel times and easier bus access increase bus use four to five times? Will fewer steps into the bus convince shoppers to bring home boxes of groceries on BRT and use it to run errands that are far afield from its route? How will this one route help the residents of Goshen and Highland who will be paying for it?
Why did Utah County mayors approve this? With all the county money and then some going to Provo-Orem’s BRT, the rest of the county risks being cheated out of needed road repairs. Commissioner Ellertson says that won’t happen, but it sounds like pie-in-the-sky. These mayors should be hollering. Ask them why they aren’t.
There are too many flat tires on this argument. Meeting attendees claimed too little input, too many closed doors and too many ignored requests for facts and figures. When Mr. Ellertson said the lack of transparency wasn’t deliberate, the Jan. 13 crowd twittered in disbelief. Some say BRT would have been voted down, but we never got to vote on this $75 million dollar albatross.
This deal looks like a dud, with massive debt, maxed out credit, scary interest payments and county streets going, literally, to pot (holes). Most of those in the Jan. 13 meeting agreed. This matter is still workable, despite reports to the contrary. Make yourself heard during the comment period that ends Feb. 7 at Otherwise, prepare for big potholes and bigger debt.

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