UTA ridership plummeted last year, but agency still did well financially

$97 million in federal emergency aid helped make ends meet.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Pedestrians wearing face masks during the pandemic exit a UTA bus in downtown Provo on Sept. 11, 2020.

Ridership plummeted on Utah Transit Authority buses and trains in 2020 during the pandemic, but the agency still managed to do well financially — thanks to emergency federal aid.

For example, ridership dropped by 47% last year. But the agency’s overall revenue ended up 14% higher than its original budget.

“We lost about $21 million in fare box revenue, but we also received about $97 million so far out of CARES Act funding from the federal government that helped offset our losses,” said Brad Armstrong, senior manager of budget and financial analysis at UTA. The agency also plans to spend about that much in federal emergency aid again this year.

That was shown as UTA Board released its preliminary 2020 financial report on Wednesday that shows the financial toll that COVID-19 took on the agency.

Some other key findings include:

• Overall ridership dropped from 44.2 million trips in 2019 to 23.5 million last year, diving by nearly half. Bus ridership was down 40%, light rail ridership dropped 51% and commuter rail shrank 61%.

Of note, UTA surveys recently found that two of every four riders that it lost during the pandemic say it is unlikely they will ever return — even after the virus is under control.

• Revenue from passengers was down by 39% during the year.

• UTA figures a “subsidy per rider,” or how much sales-tax money is used to subsidize each ride beyond what is covered by fares. The agency had aimed to keep that subsidy at $5.88 for 2020. It ended up at $10.56, or 80% higher than its pre-pandemic target.

• The lion’s share of UTA’s revenue normally comes from sales taxes. Despite the pandemic, the agency’s sales tax receipts increased by 3.7% for the year (through November) — also a big financial boost to the agency.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, how can that be? We’re in the middle of this pandemic,” Armstrong said. He offered an answer.

“I read an interesting study the other day from the University of New Hampshire where they talked about the economic growth of all 50 states in the country. And they said through the third quarter of last year, every state in the country had negative economic growth except for one state: Utah. So, we’re this little island of economic prosperity,” he said.

• UTA managed to cut its operating expenses by 9.1% during the year. At the height of stay-at-home orders, it drastically cut service. Later, it restored it to 91% of pre-pandemic levels, and has said it plans to continue that this year until demand increases.

Helping to cut expenses was that UTA paid an average of $1.49 a gallon for diesel fuel during the year, instead of the $2.50 a gallon it expected. Armstrong said UTA is the biggest single user of diesel fuel in the state.