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The Utah Transit Authority has an official goal to increase ridership by 3.3 percent this year in the wake of achieving record ridership in 2014. But UTA's board was told Monday that the number of transit passengers is actually decreasing.
Ridership is down from last year by 1.8 percent, about 400,000 trips, through May. UTA had 18.9 million boardings in that period, compared with 19.3 million last year.
"It's a combination of several things," said Matt Sibul, UTA chief planning officer. "One is low gas prices. That's the main one, I think."
When gasoline prices fall, people are more likely to drive their own cars instead of taking a bus or train to save money.
Also, Sibul said, "With the economy heating back up again, there are some people who can now afford to buy a car" and no longer use transit.
Another apparent reason that ridership is down "is we missed one big event this year: We didn't have Comic Con in April," said Bob Biles, UTA chief financial officer.
That event, featuring science-fiction and fantasy stars, draws huge crowds dressed in exotic costumes racking up about 100,000 transit trips every time it is held, and two Comic Con events took place in Salt Lake City last year.
UTA spokesman Remi Barron said transit agencies nationwide have seen similar reductions in ridership amid low gas prices and the improving economy.
"Our peer agencies around the West also have struggled the first quarter with ridership," Sibul said, "so we're not the only ones."
While low gasoline prices may have hurt UTA ridership, they also are generating agency savings by lowering its fuel costs.
"We have plowed that back into service," Sibul said, adding that may help boost ridership for the rest of the year.
Next month on UTA's Aug. 16 schedule-change date, UTA will use the savings to increase frequency and hours on several bus routes in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties, said Jerry Benson, UTA vice president for operations.
It used similar savings earlier this year to restore bus service that had been cut during the recession on several holidays, and to expand some route coverage.
UTA also is pitching some fare promotions that began earlier this month.
Through Dec. 31, UTA is offering a 20 percent discount on fares for those who use the agency's electronic FAREPAY card. That discount, which allows a one-way trip for $2 instead of $2.50, had earlier been scheduled to expire in June.
UTA also is offering a 40 percent discount for those using a FAREPAY card and travel just on local buses, and not other rail services lowering a one-way fare to $1.50.
Through the end of the year, the agency is offering a group pass for $10, down from $15. It allows up to four people to make a round trip on buses, TRAX and FrontRunner between 8:30 a.m. and midnight on the day of purchase.
Last year, UTA set an all-time ridership record of 45.1 million boardings, up from the previous high of 44.1 million in 2013. A boarding is every time a rider enters a train or bus. With transfers, it is possible for one trip to have several boardings.
The UTA board set a goal to increase ridership this year by 3.3 percent, one of eight formal goals that UTA administrators must meet to earn annual bonuses.
News about decreasing ridership comes as voters may be asked this November to increase sales taxes by a quarter-cent per dollar to improve local roads and transit. Forty percent of the extra money would go to UTA.
Counties will decide whether to place the tax proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot.
UTA has said it figures that voter approval of the tax would boost its budget by 13 percent, generating an extra $39 million a year.
The agency has said it intends to tap that extra revenue, if it comes, to expand overall bus service by 15 percent to 20 percent by 2020 with more routes, longer service hours and greater frequency.
UTA President and CEO Michael Allegra gave the board a written report Monday saying such improvements would include doubling transit routes that operate later than 9 p.m. and increasing weekend routes by 25 percent.
Allegra said improvements would also increase the number of the most important and popular bus routes that offer service every 15 minutes by 30 percent, and also would triple the number of bus shelters and amenities.