Through Parleys by bus | ParkRecord.com

Through Parleys by bus

David Hampshire, The Park Record

February 29 was one of those white-knuckle days in Parleys Canyon. An early-evening snowstorm had turned I-80 into an automotive bobsled run. The Utah Highway Patrol had set up a roadblock in the eastbound lanes, checking all vehicles for chains or four-wheel drive.

Destry Pollard stopped at the roadblock and rolled down his window.

"You’ll have to turn around," a patrolman shouted over the wind.

"I’ve got chains," Pollard shouted back.

The patrolman waved him through.

Pollard wheeled the bus into the semi chain-up lane, pulled on his heavy coat and opened the door.

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"Have you ever had to use the chains before?" one of his passengers asked.

"Only in training," he said.

While Pollard wrestled the chains onto the rear wheels, the dozen passengers on the 902 bus from Salt Lake City to Park City stretched out and waited. Snatches of conversation drifted over the high-backed seats. One man worked in the glow of his laptop screen, stopping only to answer his cell phone.

With chains clapping against the bus’s wheel wells, Pollard completed the route without incident. His final stop came about half an hour late, but no one complained. And why should they have? He had taken a load off all of them.

Bus service launched in October

Known officially as the Park City-Salt Lake City Connect, the 902 bus has been buzzing up and down Parleys Canyon since last October. Some people are already devoted clients of the service. But others still don’t know it exists.

"I think it’s great not having to do the driving," says Park Meadows resident Laurel Caryn, who teaches two days a week at the University of Utah. "I’ve lived in Park City for almost 20 years, and commuting, and I’ve waited for this bus forever."

Caryn estimates that, when she drove to work, it took 40 minutes. On the bus, it’s about 60. "But those 60 minutes I can read. I can bring my laptop. I can sleep. So it’s not as if it was wasted."

One of the amenities of these half-million-dollar long-distance coaches is a Wi-Fi system. So you can use your laptop for more than playing solitaire.

Caryn, a firm believer in the environmental value of public transportation, says she really wants the service to work.

"I don’t know if we need more advertising. Some people aren’t aware of it. I’m still surprised that in Park City I’ll tell people that I take the bus to Salt Lake and they’ll go, ‘What bus?’"

Fare may be a deterrent

Among those do know about the bus, some are deterred by the fare $5.50 one way, $11 round trip and contend that it costs less to drive.

"I have a Volkswagen," Caryn says, "and I think my round trip was about $7 to $8, depending on the price of gas. So it is a little bit more (to ride the bus). But then there’s also the wear and tear on the car."

Another Park Meadows resident, George Dymalski, who works in downtown Salt Lake City, estimates that he was paying about $10 a day for gasoline. Including what he was spending on errands, running the kids around, etc., "I was having, like, a $300 or $400 a month gas bill." With his wife’s encouragement, he started riding the bus in mid-February and now plans to use it 80 or 90 percent of the time.

"I have a Kindle a Kindle Fire so I listen to Pandora and I also read the top stories and check e-mail. It’s great. I love having the Wi-Fi."

Midway resident Robert Cooper says he became a believer in mass transit when he lived in the Salt Lake Valley. These days, about three or four days a week, he parks his car at Redstone and picks up the 902 bus there. "I work in Salt Lake, so I drive over to Kimball Junction and ride it down so I can do some reading and some sleeping," he says.

College student finds it useful

For student Kyle Efinger, riding the bus saves his parents a couple of trips a week to his dorm at the University of Utah. "I’m a freshman at the University. My parents live in Park City. So I come back up on the weekends and stay at home," he says.

If there’s a common complaint among passengers on the 902, it’s that the fare system is inflexible and won’t allow transfers to the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) system along the Wasatch Front. There are no discounts for students or senior citizens. UTA monthly passes, which are subsidized by the University of Utah and many major Salt Lake City employers, won’t work on the Park City bus. You can buy a 30-day pass just for the 902 bus but, at $242 a month, it offers little or no discount over paying the $5.50 fare per ride.

"If you’re a business person only going down five days a week at most, you’re actually losing money," Dymalski says. "I think you should get a break if you buy a 30-day pass."

Still working out the bugs

Kent Cashel, the transit/transportation manager for Park City Municipal Corp., acknowledges there are bugs to be worked out with the five-month-old pilot project, including the price of the monthly pass. "There’s not a financial incentive to buy it," he agrees. "Within about 15 minutes of marketing those things the math became apparent to me."

Cashel is a 13-year Park City employee who says he’s been working on the project for most of that time. "We’ve been working with UTA from the very start," he says. "I always felt, when I began this 10-plus years ago, was that, for a system to work, it had to link in with public transit along the Wasatch Front."

About five years ago, he says, Park City, Summit County and the UTA signed a three-way agreement to develop a business model. "And then, last year, I’m not sure why, but suddenly UTA became extremely interested in getting this thing going. I think part of it had to do with trying to connect jobs (in Park City) to people who needed jobs down in Salt Lake."

The agreement calls for the UTA to operate the service and maintain the buses, Cashel says, while the city and the county provide a revenue guarantee. That guarantee is capped, so the city and county are ultimately relying on fares to pay for the service.

"We’re like everybody out there in a changing world in terms of federal involvement and support for services. In the past, I think, we would look to heavily subsidize transit operations. But we’re not sure that that’s going to continue in the future."

Could take three years to break even

Cashel’s projections show that it could take up to three years for the route to reach the break-even point. "It takes time for people to 1) learn it’s there and 2) adjust their lifestyle to it," he says.

"We still need better ridership in order to reach our goal. But we’re not unhappy with what we’re seeing, particularly in the winter."

He expects that, if gasoline prices rise above $4 a gallon, ridership numbers will improve. "There’s some kind of magical number where even people who don’t ride the bus start looking at it."

The weekday winter schedule has four buses leaving the intermodal hub in Salt Lake City between 5:25 and 7:27 a.m., with stops downtown, at the University of Utah and in Sugar House. After stopping at Kimball Junction, the 5:25 bus reaches Canyons at 6:30 a.m., lower Park Avenue at 6:35 a.m., Park City Mountain Resort at 6:40 a.m. and Deer Valley at 6:52 a.m. Meanwhile, there are three buses leaving Park City’s Old Town Transit Center between 6:24 a.m. and 7:40 a.m. With stops en route, it takes about an hour and 23 minutes to reach downtown Salt Lake City.

In the evening, beginning about 4:30 p.m., there are four buses running from Park City to Salt Lake City and three running in the other direction. The imbalance reflects the greater demand for buses going to Park City in the morning and returning at night rather than the other way around. A reduced level of service is offered on weekends.

Strong morning uphill ridership

"For the winter services we have very strong uphill ridership in the morning," Cashel says. "We’re working to figure out what we can do to strengthen the downhill (in the morning) then uphill (in the evening)."

A key to making the service a success, he says, is the involvement of local businesses. "We continue to look for partners in the business community. The ski areas are heavily subsidizing their employees. You’re going to see more of this public-private partnership."

For those employers who can’t afford to pay a subsidy, Cashel points out, they can arrange with the IRS to allow their employees to use tax-free money to buy bus passes.

The bus has attracted some skiers, he says, especially on weekends. But, in its present form, the service isn’t aimed at skiers.

"This is really a commuter-designed service at this point," he says. "The concept is to get the service out there and then grow it." Ultimately, he would like to see it expanded to serve more skiers and midday travelers, and extended to reach outlying communities such as Kamas and Heber.

Plans for summer service

Cashel says a management committee representing the UTA, the city and the county has been meeting about every two weeks to discuss the service.

"What we’re really focusing on now is, in April what do we do with our (level of) service then? And we’ll be making some final determinations here real quick."

He expects that, during the summer, they may scale back the number of buses running in each direction. He says they are talking with businesses in Salt Lake City and Park City to try to align the schedule with employees’ start times.

"We want to make sure we’re as close to everybody’s schedule as we can possibly get."