Those red, white, and blue buses so popular today on Salt Lake City’s streets? For a while in the 1960s and 1970s, the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce ran them, and without the Chamber’s heavy involvement Salt Lake City might have closed its mass transit operations.
The story is complicated, because for legal reasons the city and the Chamber donned several hats at the same time, but there’s no question about the Chamber’s critical role during a very difficult period for bus service.
Buses were very popular during the war years, but between 1945 and 1960, ridership in Salt Lake City fell by a whopping 64 percent. Salt Lake City Lines was a private company created in 1944 when Utah Power & Light was forced to sell off its subsidiary, Utah Light and Traction Co. As ridership fell, residents watched the equipment and service deteriorate as it changed owners.
In 1967, the company, now owned by National City Lines, threw in the towel. Faced with the breakdown of its bus system, the city commission agreed to buy it. But then Union Street Railroad Co. of New Bedford, Massachusetts, came to the city early in 1968 with a proposition. It would buy the bus company if the city would underwrite the purchase by $210,000 for a two-year period, the money to be used for salaries only. After the two years, the city had an option to buy the company.
That bought the city some time, and now the Chamber went to work to resolve the basic problems, funding and operation. Through Chamber counsel William (Bill) Oswald, the Chamber and others successfully lobbied the Utah Legislature so that cities could set up special transit districts. In 1969, the Utah Transit Authority was created to serve Salt Lake, Murray, Midvale, South Salt Lake, and Sandy. Others joined in 1970.
Maxwell E. Rich, executive secretary of the Chamber, emerged as the president of UTA, with Bill Oswald as counsel.
But the problems were far from over. They changed the colors from green to red, white, and blue, but running the bus company was a constant drain on the city’s resources. Max Rich resigned from the Chamber and William Fields, chairman of the Chamber’s Transportation Council, replaced him as president of UTA.
Fred Ball recalls his concerns over the situation when he became executive vice president of the Chamber. The big problem was to find ways to fund the operation. Federal matching funds were used to help buy some new buses–the first in eighteen years–but others were still so dirty that the City-County Health Department ordered them to be cleaned up. And the city continued to pay a big share of the bills. When the city ran into fiscal problems in 1971, Fields told a reporter, “We have enough money to meet our September 4 payroll. That’s about all.” The other four cities in the UTA were having trouble meeting their payments. Eventually, Salt Lake City notified the UTA that it would no longer pay its share of the subsidy.
Oswald was able to get some interim state funding through liquor taxes, but the ultimate resolution of the problem didn’t occur until 1972. With strong lobbying support from the Chamber, and through the work of Oswald and Fields, the Legislature passed a law authorizing transit districts, with voter approval, to levy a quarter of a cent sales tax to subsidize the system.
“Planning (at the Chamber) was instituted to draft the legislation, lobby for passage, and then organize and run an effective campaign to assure that the electorate would pass the sales tax increase,” recalls Fred Ball. “Fields and Oswald were certainly up to the task.”
He added, “I was very relieved when the Chamber was no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of the system.”
The story has an ironic footnote. A big factor in the UTA’s later success came from its canny use of federal subsidies. The Chamber successfully argued that Salt Lake’s heavy investment in downtown improvement helped it qualify for federal matching funds. The Chamber/UTA’s counsel, Oswald, was able to get some $827,000 in a federal grant to help purchase it. But just five years before it started running a bus system, the Chamber’s board of governors went on record opposing any national legislation for subsidies to finance mass transportation systems. They thought that would infringe on existing facilities and “free enterprise prerogative of local capital.”
Sources: Thomas G. Alexander, Grace & Grandeur, A History of Salt Lake City (Carlsbad, California: Heritage Media Corp., 2001). Fred S. Ball manuscript at Salt Lake Chamber. Deseret News. 24 April 1969; 23 March 1971; 10 April 1971. The Salt Lake Tribune, 9 January 1963; 7 August 1970; 16 August 1971;
21 January 1973; 14 December 1973.