Transit ridership is way down, but that’s OK with UTA

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A UTA FrontRunner train leaves the Murray FrontRunner station on Feb. 18, 2020.

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The Utah Transit Authority is usually pushing to increase ridership on its trains and buses through advertising, special fare discounts and more. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency is now asking people to just stay home if possible.

“We’re asking people to use UTA only for essential trips,” Chief Operations Officer Eddy Cumins told the agency’s board on Wednesday. “Although we continue to provide essential services to work, grocery stores, pharmacies and other critical services, we support the governor’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ directive.”

Carolyn Gonot, UTA executive director, stressed adherence to that plan.

“As we do our part to keep the economy and essential services functioning, we are asking our riders and the community to follow the governor’s directive, stay home, stay safe,” she said.

UTA also is asking those who do use transit for essential trips to take some extra steps to ensure safety.

“We’re asking them to comply with CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidance, which now includes wearing a mask or face covering while out,” Cumins said.

Gonot said it also urges riders to practice safe social distancing practices. “And most importantly, we’ve been recommending to riders that if they are ill, not to take transit,” she said.

UTA vastly reduced its service starting Sunday because of stay-at-home orders, and Cumins said ridership is a fraction of what it is normally.

“Bus ridership is down 72%” as of Monday," Cumins said. “FrontRunner [commuter rail] is down 86%. TRAX was down 75% and special services [mostly paratransit for the disabled] was down 86%.”

UTA also has begun providing masks for bus and train operators. It has stepped up disinfection of its vehicles, including starting the process to hire contractors to disinfect them at key transit hub points during the day.

Cumins said UTA operators “continue to show up every day and provide essential services to the communities we serve. As you can tell, I'm very proud of this incredible team.”

He added that while employees have concerns about the dangers of COVID-19, morale seems to be holding up.

“I think people here are proud of the service that they're providing. I think morale is good,” he said. “I think people are trying to do the right thing.”

The UTA Board on Wednesday approved dipping into some “rainy day” reserve funds to cover operational costs as necessary.

“It has never been used it since it was established, but this is the time for it,” said Bob Biles, UTA’s vice president for finance.

Biles said the agency may not need to draw too deeply from the reserves, depending on how quickly money comes from the recently approved stimulus package from Congress. It is still unclear how much aid UTA can expect, he said, but added that it will likely mostly cover the shortfalls from decreased ridership and fares.

UTA only gets about 11% of its total revenue from fares, with the vast majority coming from sales tax receipts.