As a citizen who attempts to study transportation issues in our area, I urge all citizens to take the time to study the plan and comment. However, I know that people have limited time available to review extensive, 70-page detailed plans such as this, so I've compiled some information that you may find useful and helpful.
My comments also include information from earlier Dixie MPO reports and studies, since it seems important to consider that information with this new plan. Earlier plans referenced include their Dixie MPO Regional Transit Study 2012, the 2010 Hurricane to Zion Canyon Transit Study, the Coordinated Human Services Transit Plan in 2013 and the Washington Parkway Cost/Benefit Study 2011. The 30-day public comment period ends April 30 for the draft 2015-2040 plan.
Links to all past studies I reference may be found at http://www.dixiempo.org/.
First, let me say that Dixie MPO has put together a lot of information and provided a fairly comprehensive document. They seem to have covered the relevant points of concern to a citizen such as myself but, in some cases, left me with more questions than answers. The draft plan under review focuses on all aspects of transportation in our area while the other reports I've referenced focus on two specific issues: public transportation and the proposed Washington Parkway (aka Northern Corridor).
It's important to note that, in 2013, Hurricane, LaVerkin, Toquerville and Leeds became part of the Dixie MPO and now have representation on both the Transportation Advisory Committee and the Transportation Executive Council, and had already been part of the Travel Demand Model, upon which Dixie MPO decisions are predicated. It's important, therefore, that citizens and taxpayers in these four eastern communities participate in this comment period.
The Dixie MPO sponsors the annual "Dixie Transportation Expo" to gather public comments and interact with the public and citizen groups. Although an estimated 500-700 people attend the expo annually in February, this year's attendance, even with our growth, was only 668 compared to 760 in 2010.
Less public interest does not bode well for the future of transportation in our fast-growing county. Although the plan states on page 48, "Public comments from the 2015 Transportation Expo and in the advertised public comment phase of this plan are noted below with MPO RESPONSES IN ALL CAPS," I was unable to find any public comments in the draft plan, which seems a major oversight.
I've done my best to digest the 70-page draft plan and present pertinent information for consideration by interested readers, but there is certainly much more detail in the plan that's worth review by others. I will focus on the following in my two-part report:
• Key elements from the draft plan (Part 1)
• Public transportation studies and how they relate to the 2015-2040 draft plan (Part 1)
• Transportation funding options (Part 1)
• Air quality (Part 2)
• Specific project: Northern Corridor (Washington Parkway) (Part 2)
The 2015-2040 plan references the 2006-2008 Vision Dixie process – a countywide public planning process in which approximately 3,000 citizens participated. The plan even states, clearly, the Vision Dixie transportation principle: Build balanced transportation that includes a system of public transportation, connected roads, and meaningful opportunities to bike and walk. I applaud Dixie MPO's effort to highlight Vision Dixie but, as I read the plan, I kept asking one question. If a system of public transportation is listed first in the Vision Dixie principle, why does it seem to end up last on the list of topics when it comes to getting real results and get little attention in the draft report?
We see lots of road construction but not much with regard to public transportation other than Ivins recently coming on board with a SunTran route. Several studies have been done over the past five years, so they get credit for that. I think Dixie MPO wants to do what's right by Vision Dixie for our future needs, but perhaps too much pressure is on them by local leaders and citizens to focus on the other transportation areas: roads, biking, walking. In fact, the plan clearly states: "Thus, while auto use will continue to be dominant, roads will not be able to meet all our mobility needs decades into the future. Public transportation is especially important to keep us from being overwhelmed by gridlock."
I plan to address the public transportation issue in some detail because I feel it's so very important for the future of our area given the challenges we face in an area with geological beauty that draws visitors and new residents but also constrains roads. This poses huge challenges for moving cars, which, for many, is the biggest challenge at this point. People are impatient and don't like waiting for anything and that includes lights. However, that said, there is good reason for keeping traffic moving when air quality is considered, which it must.
First, let's consider some of the information pertaining to our current traffic situation and the 2015-2040 plans for dealing with and if not correcting at least alleviating the problems.
"Congestion" is a somewhat nebulous term for many of us. One person's congestion may be an acceptable situation to another. Some people don't want to wait for anything. However, the plan explains how Dixie MPO defines congestion on a transportation network for planning purposes: "For this plan, the total vehicle hours were compared on the entire transportation system in the model year 2040 in both the build (meaning all potential projects have been constructed) and no-build (meaning no potential projects have been constructed) scenarios." DixieMPO's CUBE modeling platform, used to analyze future traffic demand to project future congestion based on "Network Vehicle Delay," compared the "…total network travel time per day in the no-build scenario where current capacities are maintained but not expanded. This is compared to the 10,500 vehicle hours if all the projects are built. Thus the build scenario represents a total savings of 34,500 hours per day leading up to and beyond 2040."
The plan provides much more detail but this is it in a nutshell. It does not compare the vehicle hours prior to road work I've witnessed over my 15 years in Washington County, so we have no way of knowing what goals have been achieved in that regard. As taxpayers, it would be nice to know if we're getting some results from all the money we've poured into UDOT over the past. We should also remember that these are just models based on future population projections, which, by the way have been all over the place based on past population projections (http://blogs.thespectrum.com/issuesourtimes/2013/11/20/population-driving-need-for-pipeline-but-who-has-correct-numbers/).
"Network Vehicle Delay" costs our community in many ways including, as pointed out in the plan's cost/benefit analysis, hourly delay costs, but most citizens are concerned with accidents and congestion. The draft plan references an analysis completed by Cambridge Systematics. That analysis shows contributing factors in severe and fatal crashes in Washington County which include "multiple vehicles." However, factors on a plan chart provided by UDOT make no reference to "multiple vehicle" crashes but include such factors as single vehicle, roadway geometry, roadway departure, overturn rollover, intersection related, speed related, motorcycle involved, older driver involved, teenage driver involved, DUI, distracted driving, adverse weather, etc. Nowhere is a "total" number of crashes shown. 163 "single vehicle" crashes is the highest figure.
The UDOT chart makes no reference to "multiple vehicle" crashes. With no crash "total" provided, we cannot know the number of "multiple vehicle" crashes and are left to wonder what the number is. There's also no way to know how these different factors relate since that level of detail is not provided. When all the crashes on the chart are added together, the total number of crashes comes to 1,139, but that total includes all "single vehicle" as well as other categories related to those incidents such as "single vehicle, DUI," I assume. As I reviewed the chart and the accompanying information, which seemed lacking in necessary detail, I began to wonder:
How many of the single vehicle crashes involved older drivers?
How many of the roadway departures crashes involved impaired driving versus improper use of safety equipment?
How many of the single vehicle crashed involved young drivers?
I think you get my point, but you may be totally confused at this point. I suggest that interested citizens review the chart to see if my observations are warranted. The information provided not only omitted information (multiple vehicle crashes) but also left many unanswered questions. A map is provided in Appendix A showing where serious and fatal crashes occur, so citizens may want to review that and avoid those areas or at least remain vigilant.
Additionally, the map that shows serious and fatal accidents does not provide enough detail to citizens to determine if the tax money used for new and completed road work has either helped or not helped with overall accident numbers. The crash chart covers 2010-2014 and a lot of work has been done during that time, but what were the crash patterns and numbers before then. Are we getting the bang for our buck that we should as taxpayers? It's true that with growth we will see an increase in overall numbers as the plan notes, but there should be some improvement that can be clearly quantified.
Interestingly, although aggressive driving and speeding are seen as increasing problems by both drivers and law enforcement, only 60 speed-related crashes are shown on the chart. Since we don't know what the total number of crashes really is, it's difficult to evaluate this figure. It also makes me wonder because I see very few people ever driving the speed limit. If the posted speed is 40, then people drive 45 to 55 or more. So, it's difficult to believe that more crashes are not speed related.
Aggressive driving crashes numbered 11 on the UDOT chart, which is interesting since the plan states that "The Surface Transportation Policy Project estimated that aggressive actions contributed to 56 percent of all fatal crashes." Given the 11 crashes noted, we are way below that 56 percent, but given what is being witnessed nationally, this warrants attention by law enforcement. Defining "aggressive driving" is part of the problem. If more people drive that way, it may not be considered aggressive in the future? Who knows?
There are some suggestions made about how to prevent accidents such as "keep vehicles from encroaching on the roadside" which makes me wonder about Red Hills Parkway, which was expanded a few years ago but where people park alongside the road even with available nearby parking. That's possibly because those who park in the south parking lots would risk their lives crossing a road where speeds reach 45-50 mph. There seems to be a disconnect between what Dixie MPO advises and what's actually being done.
The plan provides an extensive list of objectives and strategies for dealing with the causes of crashes. Most seem reasonable and are achievable "physical" fixes, but all will come with costs even on existing roads. Some, however, will be more challenging such as: "Deter aggressive driving in specific populations, including those with a history of such behavior, and at specific locations." They have a few ideas listed to achieve the goal of stopping aggressive driving, but from what I've witnessed no matter how "convenient" they make streets for drivers, there are those who will feel it's just not fast or convenient enough.
As for dealing with aging drivers, several objectives and strategies are listed but public transportation is not on the list. As a person who will be 68 this year, I wonder how many more years I will want to drive and what my options will be then. If a good public transportation system were available that could get me from Ivins to Springdale and Zion National Park, what a better option that would be than trying to drive the hour myself.
Seniors are included in "transit dependent populations" according to the 2010 Hurricane to Zion Canyon Transit Study. Traditional fixed-route transit systems may need some additional paratransit service to get some more elderly or disabled citizens to pick up points, but our area already has paratransit services that may be able to support this effort. Again, public transportation could serve an important role in our community with a high number of aging citizens.
The plan includes a "Cost Benefit Analysis" table showing the total time saved in hours with the build scenario, assuming two scenarios which incorporate an hourly delay cost of $20 and of $30. According to their cost-benefit calculations, both show a positive ratio over 1.0 with - 1.87 and 2.80, respectively. Cost-benefit analysis has become the darling of project justification over many years but, according to easy-to-access online studies and articles, the process can be flawed. One notes there is no algorithm to tell us what should count as a cost or a benefit making for a subjective process rather than objective. In fact, a study from San Jose State University Department of Economics notes that care must be taken not to double count the benefits. In an effort to support the need for these projects, has that been done? We all certainly hope it has not.
Plan charts are provided to support the fact that population and employment numbers are driving transportation projects. When reviewed, the charts show that, by far, the majority of population growth and employment areas will be in the St. George, Washington and Hurricane areas of Washington County, south of I-15. That's nothing new. There is some projected population growth in the Ivins, Santa Clara and Ledges, but much less than the high-growth areas identified.
Given the vehicle load challenges facing Washington County, with projected growth and the plan's earlier statement that road building will not solve our transportation problems, it's appropriate to look at the mass public transportation and work to understand how that might help relieve congestion and provide options for drivers and those who are unable to drive. Whether one uses it or not, public transportation would provide overall benefits for all in Washington County.
There have been efforts in the past few years to move along with better public transportation in Washington County, but it's been a slow, grinding process that seems to have lacked real public and political support. The Dixie MPO Regional Transit Study was done in 2012. The Hurricane to Zion Canyon Transit Study was completed in 2010 and the Coordinated Human Services Transit Plan followed in 2013. The current plan under review and out for public comment does address public transportation but not to the level of the other reports. In fact, out of 70 pages, the plan allots a mere two pages to public transportation with some minor references scattered here and there.
The 2012 Dixie MPO Regional Transit Study states, "The purpose of this study was to evaluate the governance and funding options available to the Dixie region as it seeks to expand and diversify transit service." The study evaluated several funding options that might help to enlarge the current system provided by SunTran and operated by the City of St. George and, at that time, limited to its boundaries.
As noted, the system was recently extended to include Ivins City this year. The 2012 study notes an expansion will require additional funding but the plan states, "Existing federal formula funding is available and may go unused unless additional local match funding can be generated. Additional local funding could be contributed by outlying jurisdictions – such as Ivins, Santa Clara and Washington – as transit is extended into their respective communities."
The plan now under review notes that, "…the first phase is currently being implemented through inter-local agreements in Ivins, with the initial phases of such agreements occurring in Washington City and the Hurricane/Zion Corridor. The Dixie MPO Transportation Executive Committee (DTEC) has officially endorsed the financial assumption that ¼ percent sales tax will be implemented by 2020. This assumption is contingent upon public support. The Dixie MPO will support the region's communities as they plan for improved regional transit service."
The 2012 study noted, "…with SunTran's existing governance these jurisdictions would have limited decision-making power over the level of transit service in their communities. Therefore, many officials and stakeholders have expressed interest in the consideration of a new governance and funding structure for operating regional public transportation." Although no specifics are provided, perhaps these new inter-local agreements will help to iron out some of the prior governance deficiencies and will make other cities more willing to participate since the governance structure did not facilitate shared decision making. If other jurisdictions provide funding for transit they should surely have some decision-making power concerning the level of service for their communities.
The 2012 study reveals a variety of methods available to change the governance structure and achieve possible funding. There is much more in the study regarding governance options.
To help identify possible funding, six areas were studied for the 2012 transit report and included California, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Utah's existing transit system. These were compared to the existing St. George SunTran system. The time period studied was 2000-2010. Many of the areas studied had smaller population growth over the study period than St. George, while spending more on their public transportation and moving more people on their existing roads.
The urbanized area populations studied ranged from 57,000 to just more than 200,000 compared to St. George's nearly 63,000 at that time. Per capita, 8.11 to 24.07 annual riders were moved by the various areas studied, compared to SunTran's 5.46 annual riders. Total riders ranged from 555,550 to 2,074,580, compared to SunTran's 342,154. 2010 budgets ranged from $2.5-$9.8 in the areas reviewed versus SunTran's $1 million. Three of the studied systems for towns of similar size to St. George provided significant local dedicated funds.
In fact, Table 2-3 in the 2012 study shows that the transit systems studied were able to fully leverage their 5307 funds (http://www.fta.dot.gov/grants/13093_3561.html) doing so through various local, state and other sources while also leveraging additional federal funds. The study notes that Utah has several dedicated taxing options to fund a regional transit service. Additionally, several options exist for local governments to raise revenue. Communities along the Wasatch Front have used several tax options to generate revenue for public transportation and transit systems. The average for all taxing entities in Washington County for the 2012 study was 6.16 percent, with an average of 6.07 percent if Springdale is excluded due to its 1.60 percent Resort Community tax.
The average sales and use taxes for all State of Utah taxing agencies was 6.4 percent. Communities that assess Mass Transit (MT) (Utah Code §59-12-2213) and Additional Mass Transit taxes (MA) (Utah Code §59-12-2214) had an average combined tax rate with both MT and MA of 6.8 percent. If at that time, Ivins, Santa Clara, St. George and Washington City had initiated similar taxes, their respective tax rates would have reached the 6.8% level.
The study recommends the MA tax as an option for St. George to help fund public transit and is the recommended option for long-term transit funding of a transit system, but the study clearly states: "While the MA tax is also an option for St. George to assist in funding public transit, it is recommended that this funding mechanism be reserved for the future as a dedicated funding source to assist in funding projects or services related to the airport."
Given the need for public transit and the heartburn that many citizens still have over the St. George Airport and money spent there, is it wise to dedicate money that could be used for more necessary public transit. That, to date, has been overlooked, especially given what many other communities have achieved?
The study does list several other funding options in additional to the Mass Transit and Additional Mass Transit taxes:
• Mass Transit Fixed Guideways Tax (MF)(§59-12-2216): County Option including cities and towns
• County Option Transportation (CT) (§59-12-2217): County Option including cities and towns
• County Airport, highway, Public Transit (HH) (§59-12-2218): A portion of this tax could be dedicated to fund a regional transit system. It is currently in place and does not require voter approval or an additional tax increase.
The study makes it clear that as "…transit service expands and becomes regional, a dedicated revenue and funding source is mandatory." It is advised that of the options available a combined Mass Transit Tax and Additional Mass Transit Tax, authorized under Utah Code §59-12, seems the most viable option, but both taxes may not be necessary depending on the size and type of service. Apparently, the Highway Tax currently imposed by potential participating cities was, at the time, earmarked for other projects and, hence, not helpful.
There is more in the study regarding taxes that might be used and many of the potential participating entities already assess these taxes. It's clear from the study that short-term, interim funding options will be essential to taking full advantage of federal funding and extending services. Many of the funding options presented in the report are already being assessed by the potential participating entities. Allocation of the tax money for public transit would be needed. In addition to the aforementioned taxes, a long list of tourism taxes were presented. Many are existing taxes so there would be no tax increase, but a discussion of re-prioritizing public service needs would be required.
Given the demands and benefits that tourism brings to our county and the need for low-income service workers tourism generates, it seems reasonable that some of these funds should be re-prioritized for this purpose. Additionally, other areas studied generate funding through contracts with local colleges and/or university and some minor funding through sponsorships and service agreements.
There is one source for funding capital improvements called the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) program. This program provides low interest loans and/or grants to state agencies and state subdivisions for public facility funding. A Capital Improvements List at the county level is maintained and projects must be on the list to be eligible, unless there's a qualified emergency need. Regional transit system projects could be added each year.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration (FTA), at the time of the report (2012), sponsored two types of grant programs: Formula Grant Programs and Discretionary Grant Programs (http://www.fta.dot.gov/grants/13093.html). It appears that these may have expired in 2012 and would not apply to new projects. It's unfortunate that advantage was not taken prior to 2012. Projects already in the system apparently still receive funds.
Alternative financing options for capital projects include: general obligation bonds, lease revenue bonds and sales tax revenue bonds. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or Special Assessment Areas is also available for a regional transportation system.
Section 4.6 of the study "Most Promising Funding Sources" notes the following for short-term and long-term funding strategies.
For short-term funding the following are suggested:
• The Highway Tax (HT) §59-12-2215 can be used for the construction and maintenance of highways and to fund a system for public transit.
• Class B & C Road funds can be used for roadway improvements and appurtenances, which may include planning for public transit impacts.
• Interested Cities may fund transit services in the short-term through an appropriation of sales tax revenues from its general fund.
• Appropriation of Revenues Attributable to Growth: Another alternative to funding transit in the short-term consists of a combination of the above options with a contribution of a percentage of the funds only attributable to growth.
For long-term funding, the study recommends a Dedicated Transit Oriented Tax.
It's clear from the 2012 study and others that much has been done to identify problems and solutions regarding the mass transit issue and much ground work has been established. What seems lacking is the real will to make it happen.
While considering the costs of a public transportation system and funding options, it's important to recognize the real demand. The Southwest Utah Coordinated Human Service Public Transportation Plan of 2013 provides much information to support the need. The plan's purpose was to identify the target population and strategies to meet the needs and coordinate available and potential resources. The target population includes seniors, people with disabilities, and low income individuals, many with limited mobility and special transportation needs.
First on the plan's list of six options was a fixed-route transportation system. Currently, a majority of mobility-limited individuals in our county rely on family or friends to meet nearly all of their transportation needs. Some feel compelled to drive even if they feel it's unsafe to do so. Services do exist to assist with this mobility-limited population, but the system is somewhat disjointed. Schedules and eligibility requirements for using services can be very confusing. Some operate during unpredictable times which creates difficulties for those planning a trip.
Additionally, due to limited service area, systems are unable to meet transportation needs of the majority in the region. It's important to note that a Department of Workforce Service (DWS) representative has pointed out that many low- income individuals cannot get to a job due to lack of transportation services. What cost to our community's economy results? Even if individuals can get to work via friends and family, low to moderate wages often make owning and operating a vehicle prohibitive.
Several surveys have been done to determine how to best serve this sub-set of our community. A SunTran on-board survey revealed that work was the most common destination. A significant number of respondents indicated that they were travelling to school, shopping, social, medical, and other destinations. The majority of SunTran survey respondents who utilize Dixie Care and Share services saw expansion of routes as the most important bus improvement for them. Expansion of the service area is seen as essential and the study recommended the development of inter-local agreements with adjacent communities before pursuing the establishment of a regional transit district or authority.
One particularly interesting and fairly consistent finding is that current SunTran users would like transportation to expand to Walmart. This raises a question for me regarding funding. If "sponsorship" has been a source of funding in other areas studies, what opportunities are there for partnering with Walmart?
If, indeed, Walmart would stand to generate additional revenue by having more customers, should they be approached about helping to make this expansion possible? The Walmart Foundation giving may exclude such arrangements but shouldn't they at least be approached (http://foundation.walmart.com/)? It seems we should leave no stone unturned.
The 2013 plan notes, as did the 2012 report, that leveraging federal funds is critical to doing more with less. Given that some of the federal money that was available then may not be available now, what have the roadblocks been to moving more quickly on getting some of this money?
The 2013 plan also notes that more frequent communication with county commissioners and other local officials is needed. Has this been a big part of the hold up? I do know that Hurricane's Mayor Bramall is a proponent of public transportation and has been a force over the last year or so for stepping up the discussion. But, Mayor Bramall cannot do it alone.
Having been in the nursing home business, Mayor Bramall recognizes and has stated often, and I paraphrase: None of us knows when we may be disabled but we all know we will get old unless we face death early. Given that, how many of us may at some time in the future wish this area had planned better for effective mass transit?
Part two of my comments on the Dixie MPO Draft 2015-2040 Regional Transportation Plan will be posted in the next few days. With the April 30 comment deadline, I wanted to get these out for interested citizens as soon as possible. I hope that this will generate some ideas on the part of other citizens and that many will participate in this comment period.