UTA will keep its bus and train service at 91% of pre-pandemic levels in 2021

Emergency federal aid will provide nearly a third of UTA’s operations budget.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Transit Authority bus riders wait out the rain in shelters along 200 North in Farmington on May 7, 2019. The agency adopted a budget Wednesday to keep service at 91% of pre-pandemic levels next year.

Wasatch Front bus and train riders will endure no deeper service cuts next year as the pandemic continues, thanks to $101 million in emergency federal aid.

That money is covering holes in the Utah Transit Authority budget that hit after ridership plummeted because of the COVID-19 hit. Ridership still is about 59% below pre-pandemic levels.

Under the new budget approve Wednesday, service next year will be at 91% percent of pre-coronavirus levels, the same as is now offered.

The federal government earlier this year awarded UTA $187.2 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) ACT. The agency says about $86.2 million of that will be spent through the end of 2020 and it aims to use the remaining $101 million 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.”

UTA joined other transit agencies nationally last week to plead for even more federal pandemic aid, with many agencies saying they need it to survive or avoid deeper cuts.

After the agency cut service by 50% during stay-at-home orders earlier this year, 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%.

UTA has said it will continue to review ridership as the area may emerge from the pandemic, and add or subtract service as needed, setting aside $6.5 million for that use.

A few routes have even added service beyond what they had before the pandemic.

They included Routes 33 and 35 on 3300/3500 South in Salt Lake County — which increased frequency of service to every 12 minutes. But that came 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 with 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.

An example of routes that have seen deep cuts are Routes 45 and 47 along 4500/4700 South in Salt Lake County. Schedules for all UTA bus and train routes are available online at rideutah.com.

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. This year, UTA projects they will take 23.4 million. Next year, it projects they will take only 19.6 million.

UTA projects that revenue from fares next year will be $32 million, down 40% from pre-pandemic 2019. While fares have always provided a relatively small portion of overall UTA revenue — usually 11% to 12% — they are projected to generate only 5.5% of the total in 2021.

Of note, UTA launched 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 2021 UTA budget proposes to spend $326.5 million on operations — plus another $143.8 million to pay interest on roughly $2 billion in debt amassed 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.

UTA also is proposing a $255.6 million capital projects budget. Some of the major projects included 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%.