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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Utahns in ‘the 435’ want lawmakers to boost public transit beyond the Wasatch Front

St. George resident John Worthington stands near the only bus stop that currently serves the side of town that’s south of the Virgin River, Feb. 14, 2024.
David Condos
St. George resident John Worthington stands near the only bus stop that currently serves the side of town that’s south of the Virgin River, Feb. 14, 2024.

On the south side of St. George, there’s a growing sea of neighborhoods but only one bus stop — and the bus comes by just once every 80 minutes.

John Worthington lives a couple of miles west of that stop and he’s seen how the lack of transit options hurts the community. When his neighbor’s car broke down, for example, her only option was to pay for a taxi or ridesharing service.

“Here's a lady that has three members of her family. She's the only breadwinner. And she has to fork out about $15 each way to get to work.”

His daughter, who is disabled, would qualify for pickup service from St. George’s public transit system, SunTran. But that’s limited to people who live within three-fourths of a mile of a bus stop, which essentially excludes her and everyone else south of the Virgin River. Sometimes when Worthington and his wife aren’t able to give her a ride to work, they’ve had to call her a taxi.

That’s why he got involved with a new coalition of people from across Utah advocating that state leaders prioritize transit solutions for the 435 area code — basically everywhere outside the Wasatch Front.

“This is not just for me. It's for all the disadvantaged citizens of the state that need to have a transit system that serves their needs,” he said.

The coalition, called the Campaign for Public Transit in the 435, wants lawmakers to do two things in the upcoming state budget. First, support Gov. Spencer Cox’s recommendation for a new $2.5 million program called the pilot transit innovation grant that would pay for locally designed transportation solutions. Second, prioritize the Utah Department of Transportation’s request to reallocate $45 million — or 1% of the state’s sales-tax-supported Transportation Investment Fund — to the Transit Transportation Investment Fund, which UDOT says would roughly double ongoing funding for statewide transit projects.

Molly Gurney, a Moab-based organizer with the national organization United Today, Stronger Tomorrow, helped form the 435 group last year. Transit solutions mean different things in different communities, she said.

“In San Juan County, on the Utah Navajo Reservation, we need to fix the roads before we can even do transit. … In other areas, the bus service is unreliable or is missing some key bus stops. In other areas, there are bus services, but the shade structures and curb infrastructure is really unsafe.”

These are all examples of pieces of the rural transit puzzle that could benefit from more state funding, she said.

Where Kade Lyons lives in the central Utah town of Price, there’s no transit service at all. Since most things are so spread out in rural areas, he said, it especially hurts low-income residents.

“It's a bit of a catch-22 where you need a car to go to work, but you need to work to get a car,” he said. “[Transit] allows that first step.”

At his previous job with the local food bank, he saw people walk 15 blocks just to pick up things for their pantry. When transit issues come up among state leaders, however, he said places like Price often get left behind.

“In past years, the focus has almost entirely been on the Wasatch Front and for us down here in Carbon and Emery counties, we feel undervalued,” he said. “So being able to have a bit of a spotlight on these rural communities, it gives us some power.”

To him, connecting places like Price with larger cities could boost small-town economies and make rural Utah a more viable spot for people to choose to live, allowing residents to more easily get to Provo for major medical care or to Salt Lake City for work.

Even having a small bus route to link Price with neighboring Helper and Wellington, he said, would tie the local community together.

The good news, Gurney said, is there’s already a positive example that shows how something like that might work: Moab Area Transit. Launched last year, the van service offers free transportation on fixed routes from March to October, as well as on-demand pickup service throughout the year.

The growth of the 435 group has given her reason to hope, too. It now includes roughly 60 people from Logan to Roosevelt to St. George, who began meeting virtually late last year. Many plan to visit the Capitol on Feb. 21 to share their stories with lawmakers and push them to prioritize rural transportation.

But Gurney acknowledges the cause faces an uphill climb.

Like much of the U.S., Utah's infrastructure and culture remain largely car-centric. And in a state that prides itself on fiscal conservatism, it may be a challenge to keep rural transit funding in the budget as it gets whittled down.

“Sometimes public transit is seen as just for ‘poor people,’ rather than a really good city planning strategy and community resource.”

Funding is just the first step of a long process. Next, the group plans to meet with local leaders and residents around the state to better understand each community’s transit needs so they know which potential projects could have the biggest impact.

But as Utah faces historic growth, she said, improving transit — and making sure a fair share of funding goes to projects in smaller towns — could go a long way toward a sustainable future.

“Whether you care about public health, economic development, education or even clean air, we need public transit in the 435.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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