Transit ridership is down 4.3 percent so far this year — a decline officials blame on fewer homeless people using the Free Fare Zone in downtown Salt Lake City as a result of Operation Rio Grande.

“With the shifting distribution of the homeless, we’re getting significantly reduced numbers in the Free Fare Zone,” said Steve Meyer, the new interim executive director of the Transit District of Utah, which was called UTA until Tuesday.

That news came in a board committee meeting on Wednesday, the second official day of operation as the new TDU. That name change was ordered by the Legislature through a new law to restructure the agency, which took effect Tuesday.

Operation Rio Grande began last summer to clean out drug dealers and criminals in areas frequented by the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City.

Transit officials say that some of the people swept up — plus the homeless residents who relocated for services elsewhere — had used TRAX at nearby free-fare zone stations, such as Old Greek Town, Planetarium and Salt Lake Central.

“It’s one of the clear reasons we can point to” for reduced ridership, especially downtown, Meyer said.

But he said Operation Rio Grande could lead to greater transit ridership eventually. With some of the more dangerous elements of the Rio Grande area gone, transit riders may feel more safe. “And renovations and innovations are coming to the Gateway,” a mall in the area, “and we hope that will increase ridership,” Meyer said.

Besides Operation Rio Grande, Meyer said other factors contributing to lower ridership for the first quarter of this year include a mild winter and what had been low gasoline prices — although they have begun to rise in recent weeks.

“We had mild weather this winter. The bike share program even operated all year, so people could walk or bike” instead of using the Free Fare Zone downtown or transit elsewhere, Meyer said.

Also traditionally when gasoline prices are low, people tend to drive their own cars more instead of using transit. That is seen as a reason ridership has declined nationally, and in Utah, for the past several years.

“But gas prices are starting to go up again. So I’d just like to remind everyone that transit is a great option” to possibly save money amid high gas prices, Meyer said.

For the first three months of this year, ridership in the UTA system was down by 496,127 trips, officials report. A total of 10.98 million rides were taken in that time, down from 11.48 million in the same period a year earlier.

While the number of rides was down by 4.3 percent, fare revenue was down only by 1 percent. “That’s because much of the reduction in ridership was in the Free Fare Zone,” Meyer said.

Despite lower fare receipts, overall revenue for the agency was up by 7 percent — mostly because nearly 70 percent of the agency’s funding comes from sales tax, and it is up this year by nearly 8 percent.