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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah transit officials have zeroed in on a bus rapid transit system for the Point of the Mountain but the expected cost of the project led to some heated exchanges during a legislative interim committee meeting Wednesday.
Utah Transit Authority project leaders were brought in by the legislator's transportation interim committee to discuss the expected costs of a new system at the Point of the Mountain. It's a project similar to the Utah Valley Express (UVX) system in Utah County and the Ogden Express currently being built in Weber County.
Utah leaders have, for years, expressed interest in a mass transit system to service the fast-growing communities in southern Salt Lake and northern Utah counties, like Draper and Lehi. That's because the population growth that's expected in the coming decades is expected to increase travel time on I-15 in the area and across the Wasatch Front.
There was originally a plan to extend light rail service from Draper into Utah County; however, UTA scrapped that plan earlier this year. The agency instead shifted its focus to a bus rapid transit system.
UTA estimates the project would cost about $25 million to over $35 million in cost per mile without structures built and over $40 million to nearly $60 million with structures included, according to data shared with the committee. The projections take into account various expenses, such as securing right-of-way land, construction cost, adding new vehicle fleets, annual operational and maintenance costs for facilities and station access improvements.
Mary DeLoretto, UTA's interim executive director, said the proposed structures that would increase the cost of the project are two bridges that would travel over I-15 and Bangerter Highway.
"If we wanted to sacrifice travel time, we could do it without those structures," she told the committee.
The projections also carry different cost ranges based on the possibility of unforeseen new costs, or design contingency, according to Todd Provost, the vice president of operations and capital for UTA.
Had UTA continued forward with a light rail option at the Point of the Mountain, which had been discussed in previous years, the agency estimates it would have cost anywhere from $80 million to almost $120 million per mile, according to another slide provided by UTA officials. Based on miles, it would border on becoming the costliest light rail project in UTA's history.
But the anticipated cost of the bus rapid transit project still caught the ire of Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, who quickly questioned why it was more expensive than the three other bus rapid transit projects either completed or also in the works.
The graph that UTA presented showed the Ogden Express project is on track to cost about $21 million per mile. The completed Utah Valley Express project is listed as $16 million per mile even after adjusting the final cost to the value of a dollar in 2021.
The Mid-Valley bus rapid transit system, still in development much like the Point of the Mountain BRT, is also listed at about $16 million per mile in project costs.
"Are you guys putting gold in the road?" Anderegg interjected, during the presentation.
"When we're talking about rail, you guys are kind of the monopoly on what it takes to put in rail. When you're talking about roads, we all build roads — cities, counties, developers (and the Utah Department of Transportation)," he added, reading a previous email from UTA saying that a bus rapid transit option would be about 10% the cost of a light rail option.
Anderegg suggested the high costs were a result of bending to Federal Transit Administration requirements, which differ from requirements to build roads.
"I have a hard time looking at your numbers without calling B.S. ... It's so thoroughly over-engineered that it's driving their costs to such an astronomical point that it's making it that transit it no longer a long-term option in the state of Utah, and I can't live with that because I have the fasted-growing district," he continued. "I'm looking at this — I know what it costs to put in a mile of road — it's not $40 to $60 million a mile. It's not. So what are you putting in the road?"
As every single project evolves, including every single rail project that has evolved, we've started at a much higher number.
–Todd Provost, vice president of operations and capital for UTA
DeLoretto explained one of the biggest differences for the Point of Mountain project is the cost of right-of-way along with the two possible bridges. The project concept calls for exclusive lanes to be used for 75% to 80% of the proposed route; for context, Utah Valley Express, at 50%, has the most lane exclusivity of the three other bus rapid transit projects.
UTA views it as a "premium" service compared to the other BRT projects because the path wouldn't be hindered as much by traffic. It would otherwise look the same as the other projects.
In discussing cost, Provost added that UTA is not "just throwing willy-nilly numbers out." The estimates are based on previous projects, the market, cost of materials and labor, cost of inflation. He estimates the currently projected cost will also go down as the project becomes more of a reality and less of an idea; however, since the project is very early, there's a wide range in projected costs to account for a slew of issues that could increase the price.
UTA currently estimates it's at about 5% complete in the design process, as compared to about 60% complete for the Mid-Valley project. That means there's still environment impact assessments to be completed along with all sorts of other details yet to be finalized.
"As every single project evolves, including every single rail project that has evolved, we've started at a much higher number," Provost said, pointing to the graph he shared with the committee. "We think that as the project continues, we're going to see that lighter purple continue to shrink and tighten up. ... Risk will go down as design continues to increase."
It's worth noting that previous projects have received federal funds that have significantly helped cover the costs, as well.
After the presentation concluded, Anderegg said he still believed it was possible to cut costs much lower than was presented to the committee. He said he's heard from outside experts that both a rapid bus system and a light rail system could be completed at a less expensive rate than what was shown Wednesday.
His concern, he said, is that communities near the Point of the Mountain are growing at such rapid rates that it threatens current transportation infrastructure. At the same time, he wasn't satisfied with the cost presented to the committee.
While he acknowledged the state would have to verify the outside estimates as well, he said he believes the state should be able to verify UTA's math. It's why he urged for there to be a pause on the project until there's a "price check" on it.
"We're not building roads fast enough. I don't have other options. I've got to have multi-modal solutions," he said. "This isn't it. ... I think this is a fantastic solution but, man, not for anything over $15 million per mile, which was originally quoted to us two years ago."
DeLoretto said UTA is "happy to share" any data that went into its estimates and would also like to see the information Anderegg described. Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the chairman of the committee, asked for a future meeting to be set up between the committee and UTA so that everyone's on the same page about the project again.
"All of us have the same goal and objective, (which) is to increase transit, reduce congestion and increase the multi-modality within the Wasatch Front," he said. "Working together, I think we can do it."