OGDEN — Utah Transit Authority ridership has declined dramatically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the transit agency is asking its customers to help figure out how to reclaim some of it.
In a board meeting earlier this month, UTA Chief Operations Officer Eddy Cummins said since early March, ridership on the FrontRunner commuter rail has dropped by 86% on weekdays, with the line now carrying an average of 2,615 passengers every weekday. On Saturday’s, ridership on the service has dropped 76%, with the train carrying about 1,900 passengers during the weekend. FrontRunner does not run on Sundays.
Similarly, the transit agency’s fixed bus routes have dropped 78% on weekdays, Cummins said, with the average daily ridership now at about 24,000. Saturday and Sunday ridership declines are not as steep, but still significant, with bus trips on both days down 56%. About 16,000 passengers still ride UTA buses every Saturday and about 5,400 passengers are currently riding on Sundays.
On April 5, in part as a response to what were already significant declines in ridership, UTA began scaling back service systemwide. For example, on buses, the agency reduced the frequency of service along specific routes, from once every 15 minutes to once every 30 minutes. Stops on weekday FrontRunner service went from every 30 minutes to every hour.
“We’ve been in reactionary mode,” Cummins said. “But we really feel like now it’s time to start thinking about moving forward.”
So the agency has created a six-member “recovery team,” said Lorin Simpson, UTA general manager for Salt Lake County. Simpson said the team is tasked with increasing ridership, restoring financial stability and regaining community confidence. This agency is currently surveying employees, individual customers and local companies and government agencies that purchase a large number of transit passes for their workers.
Surveys will home in on riders’ expectations in light of the pandemic and seek to find changes in their travel patterns. Service will be adjusted accordingly, said Simpson. The agency has already installed plastic “driver shields” in its buses but will also look to see if any other improvements are needed, like changing seat coverings.
UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said resurrecting ridership and normal service will be aligned with Utah’s COVID-19 recovery plan. The state has moved to its “yellow” or low-risk phase to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. The protocol asks Utahns to do things like limit gatherings to 50 people or fewer, stay at least 6 feet away from other individuals and wear face coverings when social distancing can’t be practiced.
Gonot said the recovery task force is preparing for the state’s move to its green phase, but it’s not clear when that might happen.
“We don’t know how fast the state will open,” Gonot said. “So we have to be nimble and flexible.”