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Utah transit systems look to restore public confidence, recover ridership in COVID-19 era

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TRAX riders get on and off a train at the Murray Central Station on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Transportation agencies across the state have been been implementing various safety protocols in hopes of restoring the public’s confidence in their services.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Having experienced plummeting ridership over the last couple of months due to the shuttering of businesses, schools and government agencies, Utah’s public transportation systems are starting to creep toward recovery.

“This is not a short-term recovery. We are not under any illusion that within six months or a year that we will be back to where we were,” said Carlton Christensen, chairman of the UTA board. “It could be years so we are trying to figure that out.”

Leadership from Utah Transit Authority, Cache Valley Transit District, Park City Transit and St. George’s SunTran met virtually with Utah lawmakers Tuesday to discuss COVID-19’s impact on their agencies. They told members of the Transportation Interim Committee that they’ve been implementing various safety protocols in hopes of restoring the public’s confidence in their services.

Still ridership remains low.

The agencies stressed that ensuring the safety of operators, passengers and the community is their top priority as they enter a recovery phase.

“It’s important that we prepare to restore service in a way that aligns the communities efforts to reopen and the health of the economy and the evolving ridership demands,” said Carolyn Gonot, UTA executive director.

To do this, agencies have ramped up cleaning measures, installed or are in the process of installing plexiglass to separate operators and passengers, and encouraged social distancing and face coverings.

UTA’s detailed recovery plan was designed to regain loss riderships, ensure financial sustainability of transit systems and rebuild community confidence.

Leaders pointed out that in some ways the world of transportation and the expectations associated with the industry have changed permanently, which is why UTA is also conducting a customer survey to learn how it can adjust services in a way to make people comfortable returning to public transit.

UTA began scaling back some of its services in March, the same day the World Health Organization classified the spread of COVID-19 as a pandemic. Ridership plummeted rapidly after that. At one point use of FrontRunner was down about 85%.

Gonot said the agency started seeing numbers increase again around the beginning of June, but they still remain quite low compared to past ridership.

Bus services are down about 63% but still continue to carry the bulk of UTA’s passengers with about 45,000 people a day, according to Gonot.

She said the agency believes ridership has not rebounded more significantly as of yet because universities and many offices remain closed — sectors where the bulk of their riders come from.

Transit is just not recovering as fast as people jumping into their cars, Ganot explained.

Much of the transportation agencies’ recovery plans echo the state’s guidelines, including policies revolving around the use of masks. None of the agencies currently require passengers to wear face coverings, though all are encouraging it.

Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, questioned this slightly, wondering if requiring masks might encourage more Utahns to feel comfortable returning to public transportation.

“I can’t think of a space that makes me more uncomfortable other than maybe a plane where it’s difficult to socially distance and be sharing the same air,” he said.

But Christensen said UTA is simply following the state’s guidelines.

“It is difficult for us to impose something that’s not required elsewhere,” he said, describing the idea of requiring masks as a “heavy lift.”

Instead, Christensen said, the UTA is trying to reduce some of the barriers that might prevent passengers from having a mask. Staff have handed out masks to the public for free on multiple occasions.

Underscoring this point, Todd Beutler, Cache Valley Transit general manager, said face masks were initially required on the agency’s transportation, but it wasn’t a problem at the time because such a small number of people were riding transit. However issues have arisen as ridership has increased.

Face masks are no longer required.

“Face coverings, I will tell you from our experience, is a challenge. People are very emotional on both sides of that issue of whether to require or whether to have the freedom to choose,” Beutler said. “Even in our employee ranks we’ve struggled with that.”

UTA leaders said the agency will continue to follow state recommendations and will make changes if necessary. As of now, masks remain strongly encouraged.