The sight of nearly empty buses roaming Utah County streets is becoming less frequent. But some routes that seldom have more than a handful of riders have buses the same size as those that run busier routes, and that isn't likely to change in the near future.

Despite the seeming practicality of smaller vehicles, UTA officials say the larger buses are less costly in the long run.Spokesman Craig Rasmussen said the transit organization is aware of some infrequently traveled routes but that 44-person buses are more durable.

"We don't deny the fact that sometimes during the day you'll see a bus with four people on it, but the smaller vans aren't built to transit specifications," he said.

Public transit authorities throughout the nation receive a subsidy from the federal government for purchasing buses, but the vehicles are required to be in operation for at least 12 years. After each bus is registered, the federal government pays 80 percent of the cost of the bus.

The larger buses have been built with those requirements in mind, and they contain special safety features that aren't readily available on the smaller vehicles, Rasmussen said. "The smaller vans might last two to three years and they'd be shot. In the long run they're not cheaper at all."

Rasmussen said 70 percent of the operating cost per bus is for driver's salary and other expenses and not for bus maintenance, so day-to-day maintenance savings would be minimal.

The transit authority operates a few vans that are equipped for handicapped riders. UTA is, however, investigating the possibility of purchasing more of the smaller vehicles for regular routes.

If UTA finds a more economical vehicle that will be as durable as the larger buses, then company officials may authorize its purchase. "We're studying it now, because we see some cases where it might be advantageous."

Such a move may not be necessary if ridership continues to increase in Utah County, one of UTA's fastest growing areas in terms of riders. Figures for the first three months of 1989 show an average increase of 30 percent over the same period in 1988.

UTA's 1988 ridership throughout the state increased by 1.4 percent. This came in a year when the national average went down by 3 percent, Rasmussen said.

Utah County's increase, which began approximately 18 months ago, can be largely attributed to an increase of passengers from Brigham Young University, he said.

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More going UTA

The number of people riding Utah Transit Authority buses in Utah County rose 30 percent during the first three months of 1989. But there still are a lot of 44-person buses on routes with only a few riders. UTA has studied the possibility of using smaller buses on some routes but so far has concluded that larger buses are better.