With transit ridership way down, Utah lawmakers ask if face masks should be required

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) UTA buses in Downtown Salt Lake City on Aug. 6, 2019.

As Utah’s COVID-19 restrictions eased, freeway traffic has returned to near normal levels but mass transit remains way down — still 63% below normal for Utah Transit Authority buses, 74% for TRAX light rail and 79% for FrontRunner commuter rail.

So, Utah legislators asked why on Thursday — leading to a lively discussion about whether commuters feel transit is safe during the pandemic, if face masks should be required and how new embracing of telecommuting might change transportation needs perhaps forever.

“I can’t think of a space that makes me more uncomfortable” than mass transit “where it’s difficult to socially distance, and you’re sharing the same air” in a small confined space, said Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, during a Transportation Interim Committee meeting.

He questioned if that is one reason mass transit ridership is down, and asked UTA officials why they have not mandated the use of face coverings to help riders feel safer instead of merely suggesting their use.

“We’re really just following state guidelines,” said UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen. “It’s just a heavy lift for us to impose that when it’s not being required elsewhere” by the state.

Andersen replied, “I also know that when I go to Costco, I have to wear a mask. I think that makes people feel more comfortable being there.” He said UTA also denies service to people without shirts or shoes, “so I don’t think a no-mask [no-service] policy would be a huge step.”

Todd Beutler, general manager of the Cache Valley Transit District, said his small agency — which does not charge fares — did mandate face coverings for a time. Eventually, he said it became controversial enough that it decided to lift the restriction.

“From our experience, it is a challenge. People are very emotional on both sides of the issue,” he said. “Even in our employee ranks, we struggled with that — just the mindset of you can’t require me to do something versus you need to require this for our safety.”

He said his agency finds that most passengers still use face coverings even though it is not required. It helps that his agency also has onboard dispensers offering them. “They have a concern for their personal safety and the safety of others,” he said. “But we have some people who are not wearing those coverings.”

UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said several other factors are probably bigger reasons for the continuing low transit ridership.

“Part of it is that we serve a large population of students,” she said. “Universities are shut down.” UTA previously has said that about an eighth of all its riders are students.

Another reason for continuing low ridership, Gonot said, is that more people are opting to use their cars because gasoline is cheap and roads have been less crowded.

Also, “Telecommuting is hurting our market,” she said. The agency has found that some businesses that buy transit passes plan to extend major telecommuting through the end of the year, and many workers may move to it permanently.

“In the transit industry, it’s a new norm,” she said, and demands will likely shift significantly because of teleworking.

Telecommuting may also affect how future highways are designed, said Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

“We’re seeing fewer vehicles during that rush hour period” because of it, he said. Freeways are usually designed to handle rush hour peaks, so perhaps over time not as much expansion may be needed.

Braceras said the state promoted telework for 20 years, but the pandemic helped many people finally see how possible it is. “It’s something I think that now is going to absolutely accelerate.”

During the meeting, Braceras also presented data showing that daily freeway traffic has returned to near normal, even if rush hour traffic is down.

Averages for the past seven days include: 88% of normal on Interstate 15 in Salt Lake County; 91% in Utah County; 98% in Weber County; and 87% in Davis County. It is still as low as 72% on Interstate 215 in Salt Lake County, which UDOT says is used more than other highways just by commuters.