UTA ridership plummets amid coronavirus spread

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) A TRAX train turns the corner on 200 south 400 west in Salt Lake City on April 26, 2018.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.

Ridership is plummeting on Utah Transit Authority buses and trains as people shelter at home amid the coronavirus threat — but the agency is trying to maintain a near-full schedule to get people to work and other necessary destinations.

“We’re seeing the buses down about 23%. TRAX is down between 25% and 30%. And FrontRunner is down about 65%,” UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said at a news conference on Tuesday. That’s without much data from this week, when more school and restaurant closings took effect.

She said other transit agencies nationally are also reporting ridership drops between 50% and 75%.

“Many of the other agencies are implementing service reductions,” she said. “We have not moved forward to major service reductions — but we’ll continue to monitor the ridership.”

(Photo courtest of UTA) Carolyn Gonot, new executive director of the Utah Transit Authority.

Eddy Cumins, UTA chief operations officer, said so far the only route cancellations have been for buses that serve closed ski resorts, routes to business centers that have entirely closed down, or service for schools that have closed.

For example, bus service has halted to the Snowbasin, Powder Mountain and Sundance ski resorts. Only limited service is being offered to resorts in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons. Routes serving West High School are suspended. Information about specific routes is available online at rideuta.com.

Also, UTA will reduce FrontRunner commuter trains to three passenger cars each beginning Wednesday — which Gonot said will still provide plenty of space for social distancing for passengers.

Despite the ridership drop, UTA says it will try to retain a near-full schedule as long as possible to meet community needs.

“Many people depend on us to get to where they need to go,” Gonot said. “Events and social gatherings may be canceled, but people still need to get to work, to social services, and to visit loved ones.”

As an example, she talked to a restaurant worker this week who knows her and asked how UTA is doing.

“He said, ‘I need you. That’s the only way I get to work every day,’” she said. “So you want to provide some service there.” But she still warned that as passenger numbers drop, “how we provide that service may change over time.”

Gonot and Cumins said UTA operators, mechanics and police have continued to show up in numbers to easily handle full operations — even while they are told to stay home if they feel sick, and many need to figure how to handle child care as schools have closed.

“We have the best workforce in the business,” Cumins said. “We have not had any challenges as of yet with operator or mechanic staffing. ... We thought that would be a challenge. Maybe it will be at some point. But so far, everybody has come to work.”

Cumins said UTA is taking extra sanitation steps to help keep passengers safe.

That includes daily vehicle sanitizing, daily mopping of vehicle floors with disinfectant and daily cleaning at rail stations.

Additionally, bus operators and transit police officers are not handling fare cards or tickets. “Fare inspection is being done visually,” he said.

Gonot also urged passengers to take now-familiar precautions before they ride, including washing hands, avoid touching the face, and to cough or sneeze into an elbow or tissue.

“And please stay home if you feel COVID-19 symptoms, which are a fever and upper respiratory symptoms,” she said.

She said updates and more information about steps UTA is taking regarding the coronavirus are available online at rideuta.com/health.