UTA says its ridership is down because homeless riders were swept up in Operation Rio Grande

Sweeping up drug dealers, criminals reduces numbers using TRAX at nearby free-fare zone stations, but program is expected to pay off in the long run.<br>

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) UHP Troopers make an arrest on 400 West in August, with TRAX train in background, as part of Operation Rio Grande.

Cleaning out drug dealers and criminals through Operation Rio Grande may help attract more Utah Transit Authority passengers long term, but officials say it now is one reason the agency is seeing a reduction in ridership.

Some of the people swept up — plus the homeless who relocated for services elsewhere — had used TRAX at nearby free-fare zone stations, such as Old Greek Town, Planetarium and Salt Lake Central, UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson told his board Tuesday.

“We think that, long term, that will be a positive thing because this whole [Rio Grande] neighborhood is safer and more inviting,” he said. “Short term, we see a decline just because there are fewer people out on the street now.”

Ridership on TRAX light rail is down by 1.9 percent — or 309,685 boardings — this year through the end of October, according to UTA data presented Tuesday. Overall UTA ridership, including buses, commuter rail and streetcars, is off a bit less: 0.7 percent so far this year.

Benson said TRAX has slipped more in part because Operation Rio Grande especially affected it. Some people in that area tended to use TRAX sometimes for what he called “nontravel boardings” — such as to keep warm or perhaps panhandle.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune A chain link fence has been erected in the Rio Grande area on the north end of 500 West near the homeless shelter to keep people from camping in the median on Friday, July 28, 2017. It is unclear if more fencing will be added.

UTA officials have blamed stagnant or decreasing ridership in recent years — despite recent expansions of its rail system — mostly on lower gasoline prices.

They have said that when the economy rebounded after the Great Recession, more people started buying vehicles again — and wanted to drive and take advantage of low fuel prices. They say that is often seen when gas drops nationally and other transit systems have experienced far greater ridership losses than UTA.

But Benson added a few other reasons Tuesday for those continuing low ridership numbers — including the Rio Grande sweeps also taking away some of its customers, for now. “Long term, we think that will be a positive thing.”

Among other reasons Benson listed was this summer’s closure and remodeling of the Vivint Smart Home Arena, the home of the Utah Jazz.

“They did not have the number of events that they would normally have had” such as concerts, Benson said. “We see a lot of ridership for those.”

He added that UTA had “some self-inflicted ridership decline” from maintenance and construction projects, including reconstruction of TRAX curves on 700 South in downtown Salt Lake City that slowed and disrupted some service.

“There’s some customer impacts related to that,” he said.

UTA is forecasting stagnant ridership for 2018 as well.

Its proposed budget for 2018 projects that passenger fares will generate $50.3 million — down from the $53.2 it had budgeted to receive this year (but so far is falling short) and the $50.62 million it collected in 2016. The budget is not projecting any increase in how much is charged for fares.