UTA says it may need up to 3 years to recover from coronavirus effects, maybe longer

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA bus in downtown Salt Lake City on Aug. 6, 2019.

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. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

The Utah Transit Authority figures that it may take up to three years for its revenues to recover from coronavirus impacts — and it’s preparing for a possible long-term “new normal” with significantly lower revenue than in the past.

Still, UTA’s board heard Wednesday that its eligibility for up to $187 million in emergency federal aid will help it weather that storm for now. The expected federal money is more than UTA’s annual bus operations budget of $108 million, and the agency’s total operations budget is $490.1 million.

UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said the agency will need to draw on such federal aid to make ends meet “for operating expenses for at least the first two years, if not up to the third year.”

She said UTA will use the emergency federal money — part of the $2.2 trillion emergency package enacted by Congress — primarily to cover train and bus operators’ wages and benefits.

“We are going to see a decrease in some of our revenues. We have seen it in fares. We do expect it substantially on sale tax revenue,” which covers about two-thirds of operations expenses, she said. Of course, people shop less as they shelter at home, or as they have lost jobs because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Bob Biles, vice president of finance for UTA, said the agency may face a new normal over the long term with lower revenue than it had previously — and said that happened after the Great Recession a decade ago.

After the Great Recession, “We came out with less overall revenue than when we started. There was a reset,” he said. Revenues “went down and they never made it back” for years.

“It’s hard to know how this is going to come out,” he said. “I think we need to be prepared to think of it that way, that we may not have the same revenue sources or amount of revenues that we get now.”

Although overall UTA ridership plummeted over the past month with stay-home orders, the agency said Wednesday that it is adding back extra buses on some routes that are surprisingly too crowded to allow safe social distancing.

The unexpectedly crowded bus routes, all in Salt Lake County, are routes 33 (on 3300 South in the eastern county), 35 (on 3500 South in the western county), 200 (on 200 South from downtown to the University of Utah) and 217 (on Redwood Road).

UTA also added extra midday train cars to its Red Line Trax from the University of Utah because of unexpected crowding there outside of usual peak hours.

Gonot noted that the agency earlier this month drastically cut service because of decreased ridership, but closely watched its effects.

“We found that several routes have been experiencing heavy loads during peak hours. Primarily, we’re not able to maintain the sort of social distancing standard that we would like to see,” she said. So extra buses and greater frequency were added to those routes.

“It’s very important that we remain flexible, that we listen to what’s going on, we listen to our customers, listen to our operators, and then react quickly,” said Eddy Cumins, UTA chief operations officer. He said the agency will continue that.

Gonot said bus ridership is down by 73% compared to normal; FrontRunner commuter rail is down by 89%; light rail (TRAX and streetcar) is down 74%; and paratransit is down by 88%.

Gonot and Cumins said ridership flows have changed during COVID-19, including strong bus ridership on Saturdays and strong midday ridership on some routes, which normally only had high ridership in traditional peak morning and evening commuter times.

“We started to see a significant midday ridership around 1 to 3 p.m.,” Cumins said, adding the agency is unsure why. He said work shifts may have changed or shortened leading to the change.

Gonot added that UTA has also made more changes to help protect its operators and riders.

For example, TRAX trains now automatically open doors at stations so that riders need not physically touch buttons to do so. UTA has also blocked access near operators on TRAX to keep distance from riders.

UTA previously started having bus riders enter rear doors to keep distance from operators. It has increased cleaning and asked people who are sick not to ride, and also asks riders to wear masks.