SALT LAKE CITY — With a sharp dip in ridership due to coronavirus, the Utah Transit Authority will scale back bus and FrontRunner service in Weber and Davis counties as well as in the rest of the state.
“COVID-19, people working at home,” UTA spokesman Carl Arky said Friday, alluding to the cause for the decline in ridership.
The upshot for those still using the transit service will likely be slightly longer waits between buses and trains when the changes go into effect on April 5. But with less fare revenue stemming from reduced ridership and, significantly, an expected dip in sales tax funding as consumers scale back spending due to coronavirus jitters, UTA officials say they had to act to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money.
The decline in UTA ridership — more than 60% among bus users and more than 75% among FrontRunner riders — “was relatively dramatic,” said Beth Holbrook, the UTA trustee representing Weber, Davis and Box Elder counties. “We’re trying to be responsive to what will be some fiscal challenges in the near future due to ridership declines.”
Sales tax funds account for the single biggest chunk of UTA funding, 71.2% of the originally budgeted operating revenue for 2020, or $350.2 million of the $491.86 million total. Passenger fares account for $55.2 million of this year’s expected revenue, according to the original spending plan for the year.
On the positive side, no layoffs are planned among UTA’s workforce of 2,400 to 2,600, at least for now, according to Holbrook. And to those who still use the system, she and Arky both said there’s no way the public transit service is going to fade away. “It’s still an essential service,” the only means of transit for many, Arky said.
The decision to scale back service came Friday morning, with Holbrook and the other two UTA trustees directing UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot to implement the service changes. UTA planners have largely decided on the service reductions, meant to be temporary, according to Arky. They will be posting specific schedule changes on the UTA website ahead of April 5, when they take effect, and launch a communications campaign to get the word out.
The sort of changes expected to weekday bus service are reductions in frequency of service along specific routes, from once every 15 minutes to once every 30 minutes, according to a UTA press release. Weekday FrontRunner service will likely increase from stops at individual stations every 30 minutes to one stop per hour. Schedules are posted online at rideuta.com/Rider-Tools/Schedules-and-Maps; the UTA customer service line is 801-743-3882.
Officials don’t yet know how big a financial hit UTA will take, according to Holbrook, who said other transit systems across the country are experiencing similar ridership dips. But ridership has fallen dramatically just since March 11, when coronavirus concerns in Utah started escalating, according to UTA data provided to the trustees ahead of Friday’s decision.
Normal weekday ridership on UTA’s fixed bus routes went from a pre-coronavirus average of 81,439 to 31,553 last Tuesday, a 61.3% drop. FrontRunner service fell from a weekday average of 18,738 to 4,332 last Tuesday, a 76.9% fall. Traffic on the TRAX light rail system in the Salt Lake City area fell 64.1%, while Utah Valley Express traffic declined by 73.4%.
Ogden is the northernmost stop on the FrontRunner line, which travels south through Roy, Clearfield and Layton on its way to Salt Lake City and points further south to Provo. At the same time, UTA buses serve locales throughout Weber and Davis counties, extending as far north as Box Elder County.
Holbrook said the $2 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus plan headed to approval contains a $25 billion earmark for transit agencies. She doesn’t know what, if any, funds may be pumped into UTA, however.
UTA is planning to develop a bus rapid transit system connecting the Ogden FrontRunner station and the Weber State University campus with express bus service. An application for funding has been submitted to the feds and Holbrook isn’t sure how the economic uncertainties brought on by coronavirus will impact those plans, if at all.
In addition to the planned service changes, UTA said it has implemented additional cleaning and social-distancing measures on its buses and trains in response to coronavirus concerns.