The Utah Transit Authority wants the authority to condemn property.
UTA General Manager John Inglish and General Counsel Kathryn Pett asked the Transportation Interim Committee to consider granting UTA the power of eminent domain.
"We don't even have the threat to make, which makes our property acquisition quite difficult," Inglish told the panel.
Pett said UTA's lack of eminent domain powers has even caused the Federal Transit Administration to question whether UTA can carry out some of the construction projects it has pursued.
UTA officials noted that the agency didn't need the authority to complete its 15-mile TRAX light rail system.
Still, nearly every other transit agency in the country, Inglish said, has the power to take private property for market value.
The executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, which does have eminent domain powers, concurred that eminent domain is a crucial tool for the construction of transportation projects.
Lacking that power is "a huge handicap for them to deliver on their projects," Tom Warne told the committee.
UDOT has in the past shied away from using its eminent domain powers to assist UTA, despite the fact that the agency and department work closely together at times. Inglish said he understands UDOT's reluctance to get involved in his agency's efforts to acquire property.
When lawmakers wondered if UDOT should lend its powers to UTA, Warne suggested instead that "you just give them the authority and let them do their business."
The issue of whether governments and quasi-governments in Utah should be allowed to take private property has been a controversial one over the years, lawmakers acknowledged. But, some said, the time may be right to at least consider giving UTA eminent domain. The question will receive further consideration in the committee.
Committee co-chairwoman Rep. Marda Dillree, R-Farmington, said language giving UTA eminent domain powers could be inserted into other legislation dealing with eminent domain issues that is likely to be proposed next session.
UTA has avoided the problems associated with not having eminent domain by relying on agreements with local governments to use their condemnation powers when needed. However, those agreements did not always pan out during construction of the north-south TRAX line.
"We have now three serious cases where this process did not work," Inglish said.
The result, he said, was that a Midvale home was left standing on property needed for a passenger station, $100,000 was spent on a crossing gate and safety equipment for one Murray driveway and another family was paid an additional fee for access to their property.
Inglish said UTA is encountering difficulties in acquiring rights-of-way on 400 South and 500 South for the 2.5-mile University TRAX extension. Eminent domain would come in handy now, he said, and will only become more critical as UTA seeks to expand its light-rail system and possibly build a diesel-train, commuter-rail network.