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Switzerland trip by lawmakers, UTA board members raises questions

FILE — UTA offices Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. The Utah Transit Authority abruptly canceled a competitive bid in September after two of its board members traveled with state legislators to Switzerland where they met with one of the prospective bidders.
FILE — UTA offices Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. The Utah Transit Authority abruptly canceled a competitive bid in September after two of its board members traveled with state legislators to Switzerland where they met with one of the prospective bidders.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Transit Authority abruptly canceled a competitive bid in September after two of its board members traveled with state legislators to Switzerland where they met with one of the prospective bidders.

"Because of the open procurement process, the board likely would not have authorized a trip to Switzerland," UTA board Chairman H. David Burton said in a statement Monday.

"Once UTA learned of the trip and that two board members had traveled and met with representatives from Stadler Rail, it decided to cancel the procurement process that was already underway," he said. "UTA did this out of an abundance of caution."

The UTA board was not aware of the trip until after it occurred, said Remi Barron, agency spokesman.

Stadler Rail Group, a major manufacturer of state-of-the-art railcars with 10 facilities in Europe, is looking at several sites for expansion in the United States, including in Utah.

UTA board members Chris Bleak and Sheldon Killpack, a former state senator, were among legislative leaders and UTA lobbyists who went to Switzerland in September on what was a described as a "trade mission," according documents obtained through an open records request by the Deseret News and KSL.

Legislative leaders included Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper; Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

In addition to seeking business opportunities, the Mountain Accord was a key subject of the trip, according to the documents. The long-range development plan recently adopted by a group of policymakers and community leaders calls for expansion of transit options that could include trains to mountain resorts.

The trip also caught the Governor's Office of Economic Development off guard, which has spent the past few months wooing Stadler Rail. After finding out about it, GOED scrambled to send a deputy director, Kimberly Henrie, to Switzerland for two days of the weeklong trip.

"We decided to send, kind of last-minute, one of our employees to basically be there to supervise the recruitment process because that's GOED's responsibility," Val Hale, executive director, told the Deseret News. "We wanted to be there to make sure that any commitments made by the state or for the state were legitimate and could be backed up by statute and by our policies."

Hale said GOED encourages lawmakers to help recruit business to the state, "but this was probably a little more involved than what they have been in the past."

Hughes said while he was aware of GOED's efforts in Switzerland, "I don't think anyone on our trip understood its exact status as we went there. We just knew that there was high interest in Utah."

He said if he were Howard Hughes instead of Greg Hughes he'd pay for every state lawmaker to experience Switzerland's transit system and how it could work in Utah.

The Utah contingent, he said, met with members of Swiss parliament to talk about how to operate and fund mountain transportation. Hughes said it's time for policymakers to decide whether the Mountain Accord is worth moving forward.

"I think it's time for us to fund those trips or organize those trips outside of UTA," said Hughes, a former UTA board chairman. "I don't think it's really UTA's role."

World Trade Center Utah, a local transportation PAC, the Speaker's PAC and personal funds paid for the trip, Hughes said. GOED paid for Henrie's travel.

"The board members who went on the trip tell us they did not go on behalf of UTA," said Barron, adding the agency did not pay their way.

The trip took place as UTA has come under fire for its ethics and travel policies, which it is now revamping.

"At the time there wasn't a policy about board members having to notify the board about their travel but there is now," Barron said.

Before the trip, UTA started soliciting bids to lease space in its Warm Springs railcar maintenance facility. Stadler Rail was a prospective bidder.

"After UTA verified that nobody on the trip would be part of the decision-making process, it re-started the procurement," Burton said in the statement. "Negotiations with the proposers are ongoing. For this reason, details about the procurement cannot be disclosed at this time."

Hale said GOED's involvement didn't have anything to do with the UTA bid solicitation, but he wouldn't discuss details about the state's negotiations with Stadler Rail.

However, the topic could come up at GOED's board meeting on Dec. 10.

Landing the Stadler manufacturing plant would be huge get for Utah.

"Some exciting things are going on. If there was, hypothetically, a major manufacturer and they were deciding to enter into the U.S. market, that would be great news for the United States. And if that entry into the U.S. market included headquartering or landing in the state of Utah, that would be even better news," Hughes.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

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