UTA is restoring bus and train service to 91% of pre-pandemic levels

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

The Utah Transit Authority is about to restore the lion’s share of its bus and train service after cutting much of it on April 9 in reaction to the state’s stay-at-home directives.

Beginning Aug. 23 — which is one of three regular “change days” the agency has to tweak schedules every year — the transit agency will restore miles and hours of service back to 91% of their pre-COVID offerings.

Some popular routes will even see the frequency increase, but others will be suspended entirely.

“Our customers will see a big increase in service after this change,” said UTA Director of Planning Laura Hanson. “We are trying to be cautious as an agency and not restore any service that we’re not sure that we can sustainably maintain.”

UTA’s board approved the changes Wednesday. They include:

• Hours of bus and train service overall will be restored to 86% of pre-COVID levels on weekdays, 100% on Saturdays and 96% on Sundays.

• Miles served will be restored to 82% of pre-COVID levels on weekdays, 96% on Saturdays and 85% on Sundays.

• Nine routes (8% of the total) will have more service than before the pandemic.

They include Routes 33 and 35 on 3300/3500 South in Salt Lake County — which will have service every 12 minutes. But that comes at the cost of suspending the 35M route, which was UTA’s first “bus rapid transit” route on 3500 South in West Valley City with some bus-only lanes and ticket vending before boarding.

Some other Salt Lake County bus routes that will see increased service are Route 72 on 7200 South, 201 on State Street, 217 on Redwood Road, 509 on 900 West and 525, the Midvale shuttle. Utah County routes with more service include 821 from the Provo FrontRunner station to the south county and 871, the tech corridor connector in Lehi.

• Forty-four routes (38% of the total) will resume their precoronavirus levels of service. An example is the heavily used Route 2 from the Salt Lake Central Station for FrontRunner and TRAX to the University of Utah along 200 South, but the 2X express bus along the same route is suspended.

• Nine routes (8% of the total) will receive partial restoration — up from current levels but less than preCOVID levels. They include all TRAX lines, FrontRunner, the Sugar House Streetcar and the Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit.

• Thirty-two routes (28%) will remain at temporarily reduced levels. Examples include Routes 45 and 47 along 4500/4700 South in Salt Lake County.

• Twenty routes (18%) will remain suspended until further analysis and alternative methods of service can be evaluated, UTA says. They include the 2X express bus along 200 South in Salt Lake City and the 35M bus rapid transit line on 3500 South in West Valley City.

Last week, UTA officials told the State Bonding Commission that after the COVID-19 pandemic ends and a “new normal” emerges, they expect that ridership and revenue from fares will be significantly smaller — down maybe 15% — and it may take the agency several years to work back even to that lower plateau.

UTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Biles said ridership is about 70% below normal.

He said agency projections show revenue from passenger fares is expected to be down 41% this year compared to previous projections; down 34% next year; and by 22% in 2022. He then expects a new normal that is 15% lower than pre-coronavirus ridership and fares.

UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said one reason projections show decreased fare revenue is that a recent survey of current and former pass holders — who provide about half of UTA ridership — show “telecommuting is here to stay for many people, and for quite a while.”

That survey showed about a third of former pass holders say they may never return. Many said they have other, possibly safer options than being in close quarters with strangers on a bus such as using personal cars, and many reported they may be working from home for the foreseeable future and don’t need transit.

Gonot said the agency has worked hard to resolve such concerns and bring back customers, including requiring face coverings on board (and providing them if necessary), adding enough service to allow social distancing and expanding deep cleaning of vehicles.