UTA budget calls for service at 91% of pre-COVID levels next year

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Sept. 24, 2020, file photo, a bus flashes the requirement that masks must be worn to board. UTA's board is preparing its annual budget and, with the help of federal aid, plans to run its buses and trains at about 91% of the service level as before the pandemic.

With a big assist from $100 million in federal pandemic aid, the Utah Transit Authority unveiled Wednesday a budget that aims to maintain its bus and train operations next year at 91% of the agency’s pre-coronavirus levels.

That $100 million amounts to nearly a third of UTA’s proposed overall budget of $326.5 million for transit service next year, coming after ridership plummeted and has remained low during the pandemic.

The federal government earlier awarded UTA $187.2 million in CARES Act emergency aid this year. The agency figures it will spend about $87 million of that through the end of 2020 and aims to use the rest next year.

“This funding has been a lifeline for UTA,” budget documents say. It “has allowed the agency to offset losses in fare revenues, avoid layoffs and retain operators and other vital staff necessary to support current levels of service with social distancing and position UTA for service restoration as the pandemic recedes.”

After earlier deep service cuts during stay-at-home orders, UTA in August restored service to 91% of its pre-COVID levels — and the new budget proposes to keep it there through next year.

Compared to service before the pandemic, the new budget would cut bus service hours next year by 10% and reduce miles of service provided by 12%. TRAX light rail service hours would be down by 17%. And Frontrunner commuter rail service hours would be cut by 11%, and miles of service provided down by 23%.

The budget also proposes to set aside $6.5 million to fund possible restoration of additional service as the region recovers from the pandemic and demand increases.

UTA documents show how far ridership has fallen, and how low it is expected to remain.

In 2019, passengers took 44.2 million transit rides. UTA figures that will fall by half to 23.4 million this year (after the first three months of the year were fairly normal before COVID hit). Next year, it projects only 19.6 million rides for the year.

Revenue from passenger fares in 2019 was $52.6 million. This year, it is projected to fall to $33.5 million. And next year, it is projected to tumble again to $19.6 million.

But fares have always provided a relatively small portion of overall UTA revenue — usually 11% to 12% — and are projected to generate only 5.8% of the total in 2021.

Of note, UTA will launch a new fare structure on Dec. 1 — raising some prices and lowering others — after working all year to simplify a complicated patchwork of at least 74 levels of discounts, promotions and negotiated deals.

The lion’s share of UTA revenue comes from sales tax. That source is projected to provide 65.9% of total revenue next year. As retail sales here have remained strong despite the pandemic, sales tax is expected to provide $364.1 million next year for UTA, up from a projected $346.8 million this year and $298.6 million in 2019.

The 2021 budget proposes to spend $326.5 million on operations — plus another $143.8 million to pay interest on roughly $2 billion in debt amassed in recent years mainly to build UTA’s rail system. That means nearly $1 of every $3 spent in those areas goes to cover debt, an issue that, along with other controversies, led the Legislature to restructure the agency three years ago.

Of its $326.5 budgeted for operations next year, UTA aims to spend 33% on bus service, 17% on light rail, 9% on commuter rail, 8% on paratransit for the disabled, 1% on rideshare programs, 16% on operations support and 16% on other (mostly administration).

The budget also foresees reducing UTA staff by 52.5 full-time equivalents, mostly by reducing the number of its bus and train operators, although it is hiring extra cleaning crews to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

UTA also is proposing a $255.6 million capital projects budget. Some of the major projects included in it are:

• $7 million to complete a $23 million project to relocate the TRAX station at the new Salt Lake City International Airport to reach its new terminal.

• $52.6 million to build a new bus rapid transit system from downtown Ogden to Weber State University and the McKay-Dee Hospital.

• $9 million to double track portions of Frontrunner in northern Utah County. The single tracks there now limit how often trains may run, and at what speeds they may operate.

• $32.4 million toward completion of a new state-of-the-art maintenance and fueling facility in Salt Lake City. The cost of that facility was once estimated to be $52.5 million total, but has skyrocketed to $95 million, up 85%.

After some some tweaking this week, the UTA Board is expected to formally adopt a draft of the budget next week and schedule a hearing on it for Nov. 14. The board aims to adopt a final budget on Dec. 16.