UTA ridership slowly recovering; new UTA chief gets $12k salary hike

When the Utah Transit Authority restored service last week to 91% of its pre-pandemic levels, the agency saw a quick 26% jump in its ridership, the UTA Board learned Wednesday.

In fact, compared to the low point that the agency hit on April 7 after COVID-19 struck, ridership has now risen 68%.

“Those are encouraging numbers,” said UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen. But, he added, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

In fact, the agency is still in a big hole compared to ridership before the pandemic, said UTA Chief Operations Officer Eddy Cummins.

Overall ridership is still 59% percent below the pre-pandemic normal. On FrontRunner commuter rail, it is down 74%; TRAX light rail ridership is off 60%; buses are down 55%; and paratransit for the disabled is off 64%.

Systemwide, UTA now averages 64,267 rides every weekday, compared to 156,640 before the pandemic, Cummins said.

Still, some riders are returning as the agency is trying to help feel people safe on board, including requiring face coverings and attempting to allow plenty of space for social distancing.

Cummins said UTA is trying, for example, to limit buses to no more than 20 riders, and constantly monitors ridership to quickly add more vehicles when ridership on a particular route starts to regularly bump up above that number.

UTA has said that after the pandemic ends and a “new normal” emerges, 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.

Data presented at the meeting Wednesday said that through July, UTA ridership for the year was down by 60% — and fare revenue was down by 46%. The reason that fare loss was less than the ridership drop is because contracts for passes bought by schools and employers continued to bring in revenue even if fewer people were riding.

“We’ve had about a $10 million loss in fare box revenue,” said Brad Armstrong, UTA senior manager of budget and financial analysis. “But we have received about $50 million so far in [federal] CARES Act funding to help cover that deficit.”

Fares provide only about 11% of UTA’s overall revenue. The bulk actually comes from sales tax collected to support transit, and it was slightly above — by 0.4% — the original budget for the year through July.

Sales tax revenue is still strong because, Armstrong said, because “we have the lowest unemployment rate in the country. And add to that the federal stimulus that has taken place and sales have been very strong.” But he added that it’s unknown whether that will continue.

UTA tracks how much it costs to subsidize each ride in its system. Before the pandemic, it aimed to keep that subsidy at about $5.88 per ride. As ridership fell during COVID-19, that subsidy has now nearly tripled, to $15.61 a ride.

Amid challenging financial times, the UTA Board on Wednesday still approved a 5.5% raise for UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot, who just celebrated her one-year anniversary with the agency.

It gave her a raise of $12,178 to a new annual base salary of $233,601. It also approved giving her an extra week of paid vacation a year, from 20 to 25 days. Such a raise and extra vacation were options included in Gonot’s contract when she was hired last year.

(Photo courtesy of UTA) Carolyn Gonot, executive director of the Utah Transit Authority.

Her salary is still far lower that the high compensation of her predecessors, which had led to criticism by state auditors and helped fuel restructuring of the agency by the Legislature.

For example, former UTA President and CEO Michael Allegra received total compensation (including pay and benefits) of $402,187 in 2013, which included a $30,000 bonus. Former UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson received $376,000 in such compensation in 2017.

Gonot actually took a pay cut to accept the top job at UTA. She previously served as the chief planning and engineering officer of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California, and was paid $281,645 there, according to California’s transparency website.