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Legislative task force rejects three options for UTA governance

FILE - A TRAX train moves through Salt Lake City  on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
FILE - A TRAX train moves through Salt Lake City  on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders of a legislative task force said Monday it's time to come up with a new plan for exerting more state control over the Utah Transit Authority after three options were rejected despite agreement that changes are needed.

"I was a little disappointed the task force isn't quite ready to make some major changes to UTA. I think there are still some significant concerns that we need to address," Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said after the meeting.

The Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force members said in a survey they didn't back either an outright or partial state takeover of UTA — or allowing the agency to remain intact while turning over future transit projects to the state.

If the state were to make UTA a division of the Utah Department of Transportation, or just take ownership of the transit agency's bus and light and commuter rail system, that would mean also assuming its $2 billion debt.

Nearly all the members said they support "making changes to the current structure of transportation governance in Utah" while allowing the state transportation fund to be used for the first time for transit projects.

The task force also backed other transportation funding proposals, including allowing the state to impose a sales tax increase in counties served by mass transit similar to past local option tax hikes that had to go before voters.

The only specific change in how UTA is run that the task force agreed to, however, was requiring the Utah Senate to confirm appointments to the UTA board. Currently, most of the 16-member board is appointed by local entities served by the agency.

Schultz, the co-chairman of the task force, said that's not going to be enough.

"We need to go further than just changing the board. I personally don't think that that's going to fix the problem inside UTA or change the public's concern," he said. "But I also don't know that it's best the state do a full takeover of UTA, either."

Instead, he and the task force's other co-chairman, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, said they believe they can come up with a fourth option for the task force to consider before the 2018 Legislature begins meeting in January.

"We've got to have a structure in place and the goals and the policies out there," Harper said, calling what would be a Plan D "very ethereal right now. We don't know what it is, but we know that we can come up with something."

UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson attended the meeting, but neither he nor anyone else from the transit agency offered any comment on the task force's rejection of the governance proposals.

Benson left before the meeting ended, but when asked for his reaction by reporters, he said he supports more state oversight, given that lawmakers are also looking at sharing state funds with UTA.

"Sure, I think it's fair that if the state is going to provide funding, they have some accountability for that funding," Benson said. He said he thinks the task force has realized "there's a lot of moving parts and it's going to take more study."

Harper called Benson's acceptance of additional oversight "a great leap forward." The senator said that there aren't the votes in the Legislature to open up state funds to UTA "without having major changes made."

Even if lawmakers weren't looking at coming up with state funding for transit, Schultz said he'd want to see changes at UTA because of past and current decisions, including continuing to give executives a better retirement plan than employees.

"I firmly will fight against any state dollars being placed in transit under the current structure," he said. "There has to be some signficant oversight overall in that process of how those dollars are spent."

Schultz said UTA's $2 billion debt is a big concern. He said the state also has $2 billion in general obligations bonds, but has a $16 billion budget compared to about $400 million for UTA — about 40 times larger.

UTA's debt could grow if a new budget that includes $88 million in bonding proposed by Benson is approved. Schultz said state taxpayers should not be saddled with UTA's debt.

During the meeting, several members of the task force, including Davis County Commissioner Bret Millburn, a UTA trustee, raised the possibilities of bringing in an unidentified third party to work on a new governance model for the agency.

Cedar Hills Mayor Gary Gygi said he was concerned that if the task force continues "to try to vet this issue, we won't get very far because we are so divided" and asked that outside help remain an option.

Both Schultz and Harper questioned the need for that at this point.

The task force is expected to propose legislation for the coming session.

Schultz said while he's not sure there will be support among lawmakers for some of the funding issues, including a state imposed sales tax increase, he's hopeful changes to UTA will go forward.

"That's one of the biggest things I think this task force was brought together to address," he said.