UTA ridership is slowly recovering. Here’s its plans for the next 5 years

A Utah Transit Authority bus travels along Fort Union Boulevard in Cottonwood Heights on Sept. 23. UTA is preparing to make a new five-year service plan available to the public in the coming weeks before it’s potentially finalized in early 2023. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Jay Fox is done comparing Utah Transit Authority’s current ridership with where it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fox, the agency’s director, offered one last comparison during a meeting with municipal elected leaders last week before noting that UTA will focus more on growing existing services. Total ridership, which immediately dropped at the onset of the pandemic-related shutdowns in the spring of 2020, has returned to about 75% of pre-pandemic ridership levels.

“We’re going to be talking about growth moving forward and not comparing ourselves to what we were in 2019,” he said, adding that many of transit services figures are well ahead of the national average in terms of ridership recovery.

Fox made those remarks during a UTA Local Advisory Council meeting held last week. Members of the council, including Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Draper Mayor Troy Walker and Vineyard Mayor Julie Fullmer, voted in favor of UTA’s new $1.3 billion five-year capital plan during the meeting. The plan is set to be voted on by the agency’s board of trustees in the near future.

The council also received a presentation about UTA’s plans for new growth in the near future. The agency is required to update its five-year service plan every two years. The current plan was revealed in 2020 and is set to be revised in the coming months.

Eric Callison, UTA’s manager of service planning, offered the council a detailed breakdown of what’s in the works for the latest update. He explained that the plan takes the agency’s long-range plans, other state or local transportation plans, customer feedback and other datasets to compose a list of new service routes or plans.

But, in essence, the list offers a window into the types of expansions that are possible with the revenue, funding and resources that UTA has.

“The five-year service plan tells us what to do based on our best understanding of our resources and our budget in the next five years,” he said. “It’s not a list of what we’d like to do, it’s not even a list of what we feel like we need to do, it’s a list of what we feel like we can do.”

That’s because there are constraints, especially now as the agency deals with staff shortages that are severe enough that it will pull back on some of its services beginning next month. Agency officials say working to hire and maintain workers is also a high priority as it moves forward with future plans, including its proposed 2023 budget.

“If we have a better idea of ​​what the laboratory environment is two years from now, things could move forward or backward in the plan. This is just our best understanding right now,” Callison added, about some of the projects included in the five – year plan.

Looking at 2023 and beyond

Major changes tend to begin when UTA holds its August change days. The next August change is currently projected to have some big changes to bus and TRAX service. Callison said these are plans that UTA is “pretty sure about” at the moment:

  • Ogden Valley Express begins service, becoming UTA’s second bus rapid transit system. Some portions of the service already began at Weber State University. The new service will replace current bus routes 603 and 650.
  • TRAX will move to a 15-minute frequency service on Saturdays. It currently runs every 30 minutes on Saturdays; it ran every 20 minutes on Saturdays before the pandemic.
  • An improved service to connect Salt Lake City and Park City. This comes as UTA ​​is slated to reduce Park City connections in December with its staff shortage-related service changes. Callison adds there are “ongoing” conversations to transfer service over to High Valley Transit in Summit County, which would use UTA facilities in a partnership.

Passengers travel on a UTA Trax train in Salt Lake City on March 10. UTA is eying an increase in Saturday TRAX service beginning in August 2023.Passengers travel on a UTA Trax train in Salt Lake City on March 10. UTA is eying an increase in Saturday TRAX service beginning in August 2023. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Callison also unveiled changes that are possible in the five years. Some of the projects could begin as early as 2023, but that will be determined by whether they have enough employees to drive the buses. The additional plans include:

  • Route 2, one of UTA’s busier routes in Salt Lake City, would be split into 2A and 2B to increase service from 15 minutes to 7½ minutes. Once done, this will also alter Route 220, which currently runs from Salt Lake Central Station to Sandy. Its northern terminus would be moved to the University of Utah, where Route 2 riders can transfer to reach Route 220.
  • The creation of Route 50 in western Salt Lake County. The route will be a precursor to the Midvalley Connector, which is the next bus rapid transit system in the UTA pipeline. Route 227 would also be extended into the county under this plan.
  • Improving the frequency of Route 205, which was recently adjusted to include Salt Lake City’s Rose Park and Fairpark neighborhoods. It will be increased to every 15 minutes to account for its rise in ridership.
  • A new Route 256 that will run from downtown Salt Lake City to the Old Bingham Highway Station in West Jordan. The route includes service in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, as well as other communities up and down 5600 West in the county.
  • Routes 455 and 470, a pair of Salt Lake City-to-Ogden bus routes, will be broken up, connecting Salt Lake City and Farmington Station. Riders would then transfer to routes 600 and 609, which will complete the northern half of the current 455 and 470 routes.
  • Two new bus routes in the Ogden area. Route 607 would provide a line that services Weber State University, Ogden Station and Wall Avenue, while Route 611 would provide a 15-minute service between Washington Terrace and Ogden-Weber Technical College.
  • The creation of Route 809 in northwest Utah County that will travel from Pleasant Grove to Eagle Mountain
  • Tweaks to Route 821 to improve bus service to areas in Utah County south of Provo Station, like Springville, Spanish Fork, Salem and Payson. Route 821 would be split “to reduce travel times into Provo,” Callison said. Route 823 would primarily take the Springville portion of the current Route 821 route. UTA is also working to extend FrontRunner service farther south into the valley in addition to future bus rapid transit plans for the region.

Callison also highlighted other longer-term projects that UTA would “like to do” in the near future but can’t for various reasons. Nichol Bourdeaux, the chief planning and engagement officer at UTA, explained that the items are in the agency’s 30-year plan but are highlighted in the five-year plan to keep them in the forefront of future planning discussions.

These long-term vision plans include:

  • Expanding or developing new UTA on Demand service in Cottonwood Heights, Lehi, Provo, Sandy, South Jordan, northern Weber County and West Jordan, and altering the current service map to include the forthcoming Olympia Hills development in Herriman.
  • Improvements to the frequency of the current 4, 17, 39, 45, 54, 62, 209, 223 and 850 bus routes across the Wasatch Front.
  • New bus service in northwest Salt Lake County to improve access in Salt Lake City’s west side, West Valley City and Magna.
  • An extension of Route 248 into Daybreak. A new Route F126 would also connect the Kimballs Lane Station with the Daybreak Parkway Station via Riverton, marking a connection of the red and blue TRAX lines in the southern part of Salt Lake County.
  • Bus route improvements and new bus service in north Davis and south Weber counties. The changes are related to anticipated growth at Falcon Hill Aerospace Research Park.
  • Increase bus service north of Ogden Station, including a new Route 631 from Ogden Station to Pleasant View that will overlap with the current 60-minute frequency Route 630, improving frequency to areas north of the station.
  • The creation of Route 842 and changes to Route 831 to improve service to and from Vineyard and the universities in Utah County.
  • Improve the frequency and route structure of Route 871 between Draper and Lehi.

Megan Waters, UTA’s community engagement director, said the document will go through a public comment period by the end of the year. The document will receive some revisions before it’s finalized. The process is currently projected to be completed in February 2023.

UTA is also working on a 30-year plan, which would further describe projects that are possible by 2050.

While there weren’t many individual projects discussed in the long-term plan, Callison noted during last week’s meeting that it’s also possible that UVX service could be expanded west to the Provo Airport. However, he clarified that it’s more of a contingency idea that will depend on certain factors, including the possibility that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses the Provo Airport instead of the Salt Lake City International Airport for future missionary travel.

Other odds and ends

The UTA Local Advisory Council also voted in favor of a new $1.3 billion five-year capital plan during last week’s meeting, despite opposition from Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, who has voiced concerns with the lack of new projects in the growing southwest quadrant of Salt Lake County.

UTA funds account for about $502.7 million of the proposed capital budget over the next five years, while the rest is forecast to come from grants, leases and state/local partners.

Prior to the vote, Cottonwood Heights City Councilwoman Ellen Birrell, serving as an alternate for the meeting, read a lengthy statement prepared by Staggs, as he was unable to attend the meeting. Staggs’ statement mirrored his complaints before the meeting, arguing more should be done to boost transit in the southwest portion of the county.

UTA officials explained that they use something called a transit propensity index to weigh new projects. It’s an equation that takes factors like density, low-income populations and street connectivity into consideration when coming up with plans.

“Fixed-route is oftentimes a difficult solution when you don’t have a densely-populated area,” Fox said, noting that any fixed-route bus service away from high-density areas often requires park-and-ride options because not enough people live close to the actual bus route.

Microtransit has turned into a simple solution to this problem, offering bus-like service to less dense areas of the Wasatch Front, Fox said. He and other officials added that UTA on Demand is a better option because it offers a “bus stop on every corner.” This is why the agency is looking to expand the option to other areas in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the UTA board of trustees has the final vote on the capital plan along with the 2023 budget. Those votes are expected in the near future.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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