Lines of red taillights receding into the distance on S.R. 224, gridlock coming from the east on S.R. 248 as the snow accumulates and the clock ticks on a powder day: These are not the images local elected officials want residents and tourists to encounter when driving in the Park City area.
Mass transit has been posited as the solution for years. The hope is that more riders on more buses would lead to fewer cars on the roads.
In recent years, officials have seen bus rapid transit as the fix, a system of buses running in dedicated lanes on major routes that shuttle riders from one node to another with minimal stops, possibly avoiding intersections by going above or below roads or coordinating with traffic lights. One Summit County transit official described it as having the benefit of trains and the cost of buses.
That cost, though, is still significant, with an estimated $75 million price tag, the bulk of which would be to buy land. And while federal funds could defray some of it, those grants are capped this year at $25 million per project, leaving a significant funding gap.
As Summit County readies to put what County Manager Tom Fisher called “real dollars” into an effort that would presumably require regional support, tensions between the county and Park City have risen.
There have been allegations of incompetence by elected officials and suggestions that the two entities sever ties after decades of a Park City-led transit system.
The ostensible flash point has been the location for the Park City node of the bus rapid transit system.
Applications for federal grants must include the end points of the system, transit officials have said. Kimball Junction appears to be one settled terminus, but the other end is still up for debate.
Park City sees it as part of the Bonanza Park arts and culture district, which is planned to include housing and businesses on 5.25 acres of land between Kearns Boulevard and Bonanza Drive. Park City officials envision aerial transit like gondolas eventually connecting passengers to Old Town and the resorts, and micro-transit solutions like on-demand buses shuttling passengers in the interim.
Summit County officials, though, have questioned the wisdom of stopping bus rapid transit short of many riders’ ultimate goal: Main Street.
When the topic came up at a December meeting of a transit board that has representatives from both the city and county, for example, one Park City councilor questioned the level of trust between the two sides and suggested the county should pay more attention to providing service to places like Pinebrook and Jeremy Ranch and allow Park City to determine what happens within its boundaries.
That councilor, Tim Henney, further suggested severing ties between the two entities to allow more flexibility for a regional transit authority.
County officials said an environmental assessment will include both Bonanza Park and the Old Town transit center as potential ending points of the bus rapid transit system.
Park City’s transit district recently had its 40th anniversary, and it’s only in the last two decades that Summit County has joined as a sort of junior partner. Park City had functioned for years as the leader and sole service provider, but the county’s role is expanding rapidly. It’s spending more on transit than it ever has and there are routes going to Kamas, Summit Park and Trailside.
At a Park City Council meeting last week, Park City’s elected officials heard from the city’s transportation manager that the transit system is at capacity. One councilor suggested that, even if the city could find the funding for salaries for 30 more bus drivers, it’s not clear the city would be able to hire them because of the area’s housing situation.
But expanding the transit system is seen as the solution to the region’s traffic problem, something the County Council listed as its No. 1 strategic priority.
During a transit visioning session at the City Council meeting, Henney and Mayor Andy Beerman suggested it might be appropriate to rethink how transit governance is organized. Rather than Park City leading the way, they suggested it might be a better fit for the city to act as one partner in a regional authority.
County officials have said Wasatch County and the Military Installation Development Authority should participate in a regional authority, as well. MIDA controls thousands of acres around the Jordanelle Reservoir, including the site of the proposed Mayflower Mountain Resort.
The current transit arrangement between Park City and Summit County is governed under a 2006 interlocal agreement that was updated in 2009. It was written at a time when Park City had vastly more staff experience and capacity than the county did, Fisher said. County officials have said they want more influence and control in the next version of the agreement, which is expected to be renegotiated this year.
The county anticipates spending $11.1 million on transit in 2020, which Fisher said is at least double what was spent when he first arrived in 2014.
The two councils are set to meet in a joint transportation meeting on Feb. 5 to hash out the future of the system and the role each will play.
The cost of bus rapid transit appears to be too much for either government to take on alone, with a roughly $50 million gap between preliminary cost estimates and federal funding.
County councilors and County Manager Fisher suggest that the relatively heated discussions that have taken place to date have been about conducting due diligence before undertaking a project of this magnitude.
“These are large projects, larger than these two communities have ever done before,” Fisher said. “At the end of the day if a system costs $30 or $40 million or more after it’s all built and operating, that’s — we need to have a full understanding.”