OGDEN — After nearly a year of operation, the Utah Transit Authority will disband its COVID-19 task force, looking to put more resources toward increasing its slumping ridership numbers.
With cases of the disease dropping in Utah and the pool for vaccination appointments open to all Utah residents over the age of 16, UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said the agency is shifting its focus to restore the systemwide ridership that fell by historic numbers due to the pandemic.
On April 5, 2020, in part as a response to what were already significant declines in ridership, UTA began scaling back service systemwide. For example, the agency reduced the frequency of service along specific bus routes from once every 15 minutes to once every 30 minutes. Stops on weekday FrontRunner service went from every 30 minutes to every hour.
More than 90% of the service was restored in August 2020, but shortly after the April service cuts, UTA created a special COVID-19 “recovery team” tasked with, among other things, restoring financial stability and regaining community confidence in the agency’s transit offerings. UTA surveyed employees, individual customers, and local companies and government agencies that purchase a large number of transit passes for their workers. Part of the initial focus was on matching service to the new, lowered demand driven by the pandemic.
“We didn’t know how long it would last,” Gonot said. “I do remember thinking about some of the early beginnings this would be a few months — maybe. But is has been about a year.”
Final ridership numbers from 2020 show a stark picture for ridership across all UTA services. During a recent board meeting, UTA Chief Operating Officer Eddy Cumins said UTA carried about 23.5 million total passengers during 2020, a drop of about 47% from ridership in both 2018 and 2019. Cumins said ridership on UTA bus routes fell by 40% during 2020, with light rail ridership falling by 52%. Hardest hit was the agency’s FrontRunner commuter rail, which saw ridership decreases of more than 60% last year.
UTA General Manager Lorin Simpson said while the ridership scenario is definitely a concern, it’s not all bleak. He said the fluctuating losses UTA saw during the first several months of the pandemic have seemed to stabilize.
The agency is now working through its “Five Year Service Plan,” which is designed to achieve three overarching post-pandemic goals: fine-tune transit service to align it with projected future revenue, increase overall ridership and increase consumer confidence in transit. UTA intends to update the plan to reflect changes in local land use patterns, demographics, new technologies and to bring service in line with financial and labor resources.
As part of the plan, UTA wants to add new, 15-minute bus service between Farmington and Ogden; add new bus service between the Ogden and Pleasant View FrontRunner stations; improve local bus connections in Ogden, South Ogden and Washington Terrace; improve connections to the Roy FrontRunner Station and reduce transfer times there; build a new transit hub at Weber State University; and continue purchasing right-of-way for the northward expansion of FrontRunner into Box Elder County.