UTA ridership still languishes as COVID-19 restrictions ease

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA bus in Downtown Salt Lake City on Aug. 6, 2019. UTA ridership still languishes even as COVID-19 restrictions have eased.

Utah Transit Authority ridership is still languishing as state COVID-19 threat levels have been lowered to yellow, or low risk, in most areas.

Officials reported Wednesday just how far it is down by different types of transit to the UTA Advisory Committee of local government officials, including:

• Ridership on FrontRunner commuter rail is down 83% from pre-COVID-19 levels on weekdays and 66% on Saturdays. It does not offer Sunday service. Its ridership on weekdays is about 3,100.

• Light rail ridership, such as on TRAX and streetcars, is down by 72% from normal on weekdays, 68% on Saturdays and 53% on Sundays. Weekday ridership is about 15,400.

• Fixed-route bus ridership is down 66% on weekdays, 47% on Saturdays and 52% on Sundays. Its ridership on weekdays is about 27,500.

• Paratransit service for the disabled is down by 82% on weekdays, 73% on Saturdays and 65% on Sundays. Weekday ridership is about 300.

Those numbers still show “a slight uptick recently” as risk levels and restrictions were eased, said Eddy Cumins, UTA chief operations officer.

“We are carrying 46,000 trips a day,” said UTA Executive Director Gonot. “Even during the worst times, we were carrying 40,000 people a day” — mostly for people with jobs deemed as essential who had no other transportation options. She said buses became the workhorse of the system to reach such people during the weeks of restrictions.

She adds that UTA has not faced problems that some national transit agencies had with workers refusing to report for fear of the virus.

“We have not had issues with absenteeism. They showed up. We've also fortunately have not had a lot of incidences of COVID-19 with our workforce,” she said. “Their spirits are up even though they’re taking care of their families, and there’s a little fear at times.”

UTA had greatly reduced service on April 5 because of COVID-19, cutting frequency on most bus and rail lines by about half — although it tried to maintain some level of service in most places. It figured the cuts would save about $4 million through June from savings in fuel and overtime. It did not lay off operators, using federal grants to preserve jobs.

Lorin Simpson, regional UTA manager in Salt Lake County who oversees a team planning recovery for the agency, said it has taken numerous steps to help build confidence that traveling on its buses and trains is safe. It is adding back service when extra demand on routes appears, which also helps maintain some social distancing without filling buses.

UTA has increased cleaning and disinfecting of vehicles; provides masks, gloves, sanitizer and wipes to operators; discontinued physical handling of passes and tickets; has passengers enter from rear doors on buses; automatically opens TRAX doors to prevent touching on-demand buttons; and installed plastic guards around operators.

UTA is also replacing fabric on some seat covers with hard plastic or vinyl because it is easier to clean.

Simpson said UTA is surveying “customers to find out if their transit expectations, travel patterns and behaviors have changed — or will change — due to COVID-19.”

He added, “We suspect that our customers’ perspective and expectations may have permanently changed. So we are preparing to adjust to that.”

For example, he foresees the extra level of cleaning to continue perhaps permanently.

Among other steps, Simpson said, “We’ll be reviewing and revising our fare collection method, developing long-term safety protocols and refining our long-term service plan to adjust to the new post-COVID world.”