UTA works on recovery plan, as ridership is still down 70% on buses and 86% on trains

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A UTA bus in Salt Lake City on Dec. 2, 2019. The agency is working on a recovery plan as bus ridership is still 70% below normal as coronavirus restrictions are beginning to ease.

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With ridership still down by 70% on buses and by 86% on commuter trains, the Utah Transit Authority said Wednesday that it is working quickly on plans to recover as state and local coronavirus restrictions are eased.

“Right now, it’s time to start thinking about moving forward,” said Lorin Simpson, UTA general manager for Salt Lake County who is leading a recovery team that is planning how and when to add service as demand returns.

UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot told the UTA Board that effort will include some quick surveys of employees, customers and those who rarely use passes provided by employers or schools to see what may make them feel safe enough to ride more.

As the state moved from a “red” or high alert stage to an “orange” or moderate level last week, Simpson said UTA chose to continue with masks and gloves for operators, special plastic shields separating them from passengers, extra cleaning and sanitation, and social distancing measures that include boarding buses from rear doors and providing enough vehicles on routes to allow passengers to spread out safely.

He said such measures have given employees and riders “some relative confidence going forward. Everyone’s a little nervous. But it’s remarkable how our employees continue to show up and serve the public that depends on us. So, I think their confidence is relatively high.”

Simpson said UTA is developing plans on what steps it should take when the state moves to yellow (low) or green (normal) levels.

UTA set three major goals for those developing plans: rebuild community confidence; regain lost ridership or even obtain higher ridership than before; and achieve financial sustainability.

Data presented on Wednesday shows that UTA has far to go to regain its ridership.

“Fixed-route bus ridership is down currently about 70%. Light rail is down about 75%,” compared to typical weekday ridership, Simpson said. “Our FrontRunner [commuter rail] is down 86% and paratransit is down 87%.”

He noted that ridership dive came almost immediately when stay-at-home directives were issued in mid-March, and levels have remained essentially flat but stable since then.

“It’s important to note that we are still carrying nearly 42,000 riders a day,” Simpson said. “There are still a lot of people depending on our service every day…. A lot of them are front-line workers who are still using our system to get to and from work every day.”

Gonot said that comes as UTA still is offering about 60% of its normal service and is trying to keep at least some offerings on every route despite much lower demand.

UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said a silver lining from the situation is that it provided a snapshot of who UTA’s core riders are, and the routes that serve them. “It is really telling us how many people are absolutely dependent” on UTA “and really have no other option.”

The board also heard reports on how challenging it may be to return to financial stability, and to no longer need special federal assistance that is helping it make ends meet during the pandemic.

A financial report for March — when ridership plummeted halfway through the month — showed that passenger fares were down by about 25% or $1.2 million. Bob Biles, UTA vice president of finance, said the drop in April will be greater. He noted the decline would have been worse except that many riders use long-term passes that already were purchased.

Rider fares produce only about 11% of normal UTA revenue. Sales tax provides nearly 71% of UTA’s money, and reports show it also plummeted during coronavirus restrictions.

“They’ll be down 15% to 20% in March is our estimate,” Biles said. “I don't have the April number yet, but I expect that to be much lower.”

At the same time, operating expenses have been lower as UTA has reduced service. Also, the price of diesel fuel has been 36% lower than what UTA had budgeted for because of depressed demand globally from the pandemic — about $1.59 a gallon for UTA, instead of the planned-for $2.50 a gallon.

Biles recently said it may take UTA up to three years for its revenues to recover from coronavirus hits.

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