Despite pandemic, UTA offers full ski bus service schedule — but will limit ridership

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA Ski bus pulls into Brighton Ski Resort, in Big Cottonwood Canyon on March 13, 2017.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, the Utah Transit Authority said Wednesday that it will offer full ski bus service this season without any cuts.

But it will limit ridership to 20 people per bus, require face masks and will open a front and back window — and use filters — to improve and clean air circulation. Old ski buses that were about to be retired will be retained for extra service at times when scheduled buses hit the new capacity.

That comes as UTA has currently reduced other services to about 91% of pre-COVID-19 levels, and plans to continue that through next year.

“During the 2018-19 ski season, we increased ski service in Salt Lake County to the highest levels in well over a decade. This year, we will plan once again to provide that same high level of service,” Lorin Simpson, UTA general manager for Salt Lake County, told the UTA Board.

That includes all-day service and buses every 15 minutes during peak times, he said. Simpson added that ski buses to resorts in Weber and Utah counties also will see no service cuts.

Ski buses to Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude are scheduled to begin Nov. 29. Service to Snowbasin and Powder Mountain will begin Dec. 12, and service to Sundance begins Dec. 19.

The biggest change to service is the 20-person limit on buses because of COVID-19 — which may leave some skiers standing and waiting for a next bus to arrive. “That will be a challenge," Simpson said, “because loads can be much greater at times during typical ski seasons.”

UTA Communications Director Andrea Packer said, “We will be monitoring passenger loads very carefully. We will be limiting loads where necessary, and we want to be upfront with our customers about that.”

She added, “We do have some extra buses that we will deploy … if we see peak periods or times where we need to send out an extra bus to help riders get up the canyon, or oftentimes at the end of the day to make sure people can get down the canyon.”

She said UTA will work to give skiers information about when buses are full or soon may be, including allowing passengers to sign up for text or email alerts for specific routes. Also, the transit app that partners with UTA has a crowdsourcing feature that allows riders to tell one another how full buses are, or how long the lines are waiting for them. Electronic messages at the front of buses will also say when they are full, and signs at stations may also warn when a next bus will likely be full.

Simpson added that UTA will work closely with ski resorts — many of which have ended walk-up sales this year — to predict when larger crowds are expected, and to plan for extra buses then.

Packer added, “Masks will be provided and required on the ski buses both for riders and operators this season. And we are providing hand sanitizer on all of the ski buses.” She added that the vehicles are receiving extra cleaning and sanitizing during the pandemic.

Simpson added, “We will also have a front window and rear window open to allow the air to cycle in and out of the bus as quickly as possible,” and buses will use filters to help clean air.

“Our primary goal above and beyond all else is the safety of our riders.”

At key bus stops, UTA will also mark out socially distanced lines with cones and signs on the pavement.

UTA on Wednesday also posted information online about ski bus service this year, including suggesting times that riders may want to avoid and when crowding is least likely.

UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said the agency had seriously considered requiring reservations for ski bus service this year but figured it was not ready to handle such a step. It will, however, continue looking at it for possible future use.

Simpson said requiring reservations was discarded for now because “ski service is really unique. Because of powder days [attracting bigger crowds], canyon closures, avalanches and so forth, we frequently have to adjust our service on the fly,” and that would throw off reservation times.