Do the UTA “ghost buses” haunt or help on the avenues late into the night?

Colleen O’Hara rode the UTA 209 bus to the Corinne & Jack Sweet Branch Library on Upper Avenues Wednesday night.

That evening, she stopped at the library to attend a Great Avenues Community Council meeting to vote on a controversial issue: “ghost buses.” The nickname has caught on in the neighborhood and describes the buses that run late into the night and pick up again in the early hours of the morning. Critics say that the buses often have few or no passengers.

The question at hand is, “Should the Greater Avenues Community Council ask the Utah Transit Authority to suspend operations on the Avenues portion of Route 209 between 9:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.?”

O’Hara lives on The Avenues and takes 209 at 5:38 am every morning to get to work in Murray. She opposed any cuts in service.

“I want the 209 to stay,” O’Hara said, “because I don’t drive and there are a lot of people who don’t drive.”

Debra Anderson, another Avenues resident, supported sending the letter.

“We don’t call it the ‘ghost bus’ for nothing,” Anderson said, “there are rarely people on this bus.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Debra Anderson speaks about the UTA buses that ply the Avenues ahead of the vote for the Greater Avenues Community Council meeting on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

Anderson wants UTA ​​to replace the cumbersome, standard 40-foot buses currently plying the route with smaller electric vehicles.

Local residents, upset by Route 209’s frequency and early/late travel times, said they were in favor of public transit. But why, some wondered, didn’t UTA use the night buses to go to the ski resorts where operations were suspended last winter?

The debate over the Avenues bus route changes is just one example of the challenges facing public transportation in Salt Lake City. With a shortage of bus drivers, changing passenger habits and a growing population that authorities are trying to convince to use public transport, UTA faces a difficult set of conflicting desires.

Does UTA ​​waste resources and keep the residents of the avenues up unnecessarily at night? Or is the agency improving a needed and desired service in a neighborhood that serves a mix of renters, homeowners, low- and high-income earners?

“We still see a strong divide on this issue,” wrote Chris Wharton, a member of the Salt Lake City Council whose district includes the Avenues. Some in the neighborhood felt they would only receive information about the upcoming changes when it was too late, Wharton noted. Others felt UTA did a lot of publicity.

“Proponents of the service felt that UTA provided ample opportunity for public expression because they regularly use public transit and are more “involved” in public transit issues than users who do not use public transit,” Wharton wrote .

Why make the changes?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UTA made major changes to many of its routes. People were not using public transport to get to the office as often, and the tight labor market made it difficult to hire enough bus drivers.

Some of these changes took place in the avenues.

UTA discontinued Route 6 service along 6th Avenue, changing routes 1, 223, and 209.

Based on ridership data from 2019 and 2021, this service change will provide “less travel time, more frequent service, or both for at least 75% of legacy Route 6 drivers, including drivers from Upper Avenues, Lower Avenues, and Downtown Salt Lake City.” ‘” UTA spokesman Carl Arky explained in an email.

Route 209 now travels through the avenues approximately every 15 minutes on weekdays beginning at 4:31 a.m. The last bus of the day stops at 12:44 am at C Street and 9th Avenue. The route runs between Salt Lake Central Station in the north and finally Fashion Place West Station in Murray.

“Extended hours on Route 209 are part of a larger system-wide effort to offer services at alternate hours to allow workers the opportunity to travel outside of the historic 9-to-5 commute, as well as to accommodate non-commute trips,” says Arky wrote about the change.

Not only did Route 209 offer “longer hours of operation and a higher frequency compared to Route 6,” Arky wrote, “these improvements were also achieved significantly by requiring fewer buses and driver shifts overall due to fewer duplicates.”

He called the higher level of service achieved with fewer drivers “a win for UTA”.

Too loud, too big, too heavy

Carol Fudyma uses a sleep tracking app every night. Fudyma says she can spot spikes in “alertness” that correspond to the bus schedule.

“We support public transport, that has never been a problem,” said Fudyma. “The problem is that the buses are too big, too loud, too frequent and late in the sleeping hours.”

Linke Hebrew has lived on 9th Avenue with his wife, Penelope, for 32 years. “These old houses were never designed to support the weight of the buses driving in front of them,” Linke said. He too found the size and volume of the buses problematic.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Linke and Penelope Hebrew discuss the UTA buses traveling along 9th Avenue ahead of the Wednesday, June 7, 2023 Greater Avenues Community Council meeting to vote on the vote . The Hebrews say they once mistook the rumble of a bus for an earthquake.

The Hebrews say their windows shake frequently and one night they mistook a passing bus for an earthquake.

They are doubly annoyed by the fact that few people seem to use the buses in their neighborhood and point out that they would be more willing to accept the noise if it were a more popular service.

Some residents like the change

While Ghost Bus opponents were vocal, proponents of the route had their own accounts.

“I’m a 209 driver and an F11 driver,” said John Pearson, an Avenues resident and member of the Utah Transit Riders Union. “I see people on the bus all the time. It’s pretty crowded on F11 in the morning, even at 6:40 or 6:20.” Pearson said he often sees drivers on the 209 as well.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Pearson, a member of the Utah Transit Riders Union, supports keeping UTA buses in the avenues on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. The Greater Avenues Community Council voted on a resolution to ask UTA to stop operating “ghost buses” on the 209 bus route.

Stan Penfold, former Salt Lake City City Council member and Avenues resident, said he loves the new schedule. Because of the frequency and late hours, he can take the bus without having to rely on a timetable and go to cultural events downtown without using his car.

People often complain that low-frequency bus routes and limited hours make public transit too inconvenient and impractical, Penfold said.

“That kind of reliability on a bus route is exactly what people need to see everywhere,” said Penfold, who served two council terms from 2010 to 2018. “I mean, I kind of hope UTA is able to do more of that.”

According to UTA, since the routes were changed between August 2022 and January 2023, weekday ridership in the Avenues neighborhood has increased by 63%; 78% on Saturdays; and 64% on Sundays.

A Tribune reporter took the 209 from Central City to the Sweet Library at about 5:45 p.m. Wednesday. About a dozen people were on board. After the meeting, around 7:30 p.m., the buses that stopped on 9th Avenue appeared to have only one or two drivers.

The council is one of the most active in the city. The library meeting room was so full that night that some had to stand against the back wall.

Ultimately, the Pro Bus squad won. A total of 145 people voted in person and online on the measure, and 83 residents voted not to send a letter asking for a change.

Council leader-elect Joseph Murphy (who calls himself “Jerphy”) said he was pleased with the turnout but kept his own vote on the issue secret.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chairman-elect Joseph Murphy will announce the voting results to the Greater Avenues Community Council on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. The council voted on a resolution asking UTA to stop operating “ghost buses” in the neighborhood.

Of course, the question arose whether such a letter, if sent, would have done much to influence UTA.

The Tribune asked Arky if the agency would take the changed hours into account.

“UTA strongly opposes a curfew for buses,” wrote Arky. “People vote with their feet.”

Justin Scaccy

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