As ridership plummets, UTA evaluates how to reduce service

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A TRAX train at the Sandy Civic Center in Sandy on Monday June 24, 2019.

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Amid coronavirus shutdowns, mass transit ridership is plummeting — so the Utah Transit Authority is working on plans to downsize its service to match that lower demand.

FrontRunner commuter rail ridership is down 75%, while Trax is down 58% and buses, 56.5%, UTA Chief Operations Officer Eddy Cumins told the agency’s board on Wednesday. “There’s no indication that ridership is going to come back immediately.”

Also, ridership on the Utah Valley Express bus-rapid transit line that serves areas including the now-shuttered Brigham Young and Utah Valley universities is down 71%, and paratransit for the disabled is down by 75%.

“We do have to be practical about this,” said UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot. So the agency is reviewing how and where it should reduce service because of the lower demand, and is scheduled to report on that Friday.

“That is something the federal government does expect us to do as well,” she said. UTA receives a significant amount of federal funding. So far, UTA has only reduced or eliminated service with ski buses or routes that serve facilities that are closed, such as buses for West High School students in Salt Lake City. A list of service updates is available at rideuta.com.

Gonot added that mass transit agencies across the country are “seeing very low ridership everywhere.” For example, UTA officials said transit ridership in New York City is down by 75% and is down by 85% in San Francisco.

“We actually are still maintaining about 40% of our bus ridership, which is quite substantial,” Gonot said.

UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said the higher-than-expected bus ridership for the circumstances shows how important bus service is for many people along the Wasatch Front.

“It is essential for a lot of people to get around and to their work — maybe even more so than our rail operations for that particular population base,” he said. “In general, bus is not your first option” for transportation but is essential to many.

Gonot said the agency has had few employees taking time off.

“It’s been incredible. Without a doubt, our workforce is second to none,” Cumins added. “Even with all the challenges with schools being closed, our employees have found a way to come in and continue to provide the service. It’s been great to see. It’s truly been a team effort.”

The UTA Board on Wednesday approved giving employees who are sick or caring for family members up to an extra 80 hours of paid time off besides their regular sick and vacation leave, as an incentive to ensure those who are sick stay home.

UTA said it is also taking extra measures to protect the public and its employees, including more thorough daily cleaning of buses.

It has a new “yellow line” separating how close passengers may approach operators — keeping that point 6 feet away from them. It has also started to allow boarding on rear doors of buses to allow those who can do it to keep more distance from operators.