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In our opinion: Changes to UTA's board could bolster its public image

A UTA bus and TRAX train move through Salt Lake City  on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
A UTA bus and TRAX train move through Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Corruption has more to do with individual integrity and moral character than organizational structures. Sometimes, however, a change in structure may be the only way to change public perceptions.

Changing the governance of the Utah Transit Authority from its current 16-member board, appointed by several local governments and legislative leaders, to a three-member commission appointed by the governor, as a legislative task force has recommended, would bring a greater sense of accountability to the agency. The governor ultimately would be responsible and accountable to voters.

It also would give the state greater oversight, which is important as the transit agency looks to obtain state transportation funding to expand and continue operations.

UTA damaged its brand through questionable actions in the past. An audit has brought excessive executive bonuses to light and probed into whether transit stations were planned in ways that enhanced the profits of at least one developer connected with UTA’s board. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will monitor the agency for up to three years in accordance with a non-prosecution agreement it signed with UTA leaders. Even a new benefit plan unveiled early this year came under fire for granting executives a much better retirement deal than average UTA workers.

The agency is about $2 billion in debt and has no way to expand on its own. It may have little choice but to cut services in the future to pay its debts, unless it receives help from state funds.

Few metropolitan areas the size of the Salt Lake-Ogden-Provo area have a light rail, commuter rail and bus system as impressive as the one UTA has assembled. But UTA’s ridership has been falling lately, dropping 2.16 percent in 2016, and a lack of trust in the organization was blamed, in part, for voters rejecting a sales tax increase measure in Salt Lake, Utah and other counties in 2015.

Some current board members say the organization has made course corrections and is on the right path. While this may be true, perceptions linger. A change in governance may be one way to change that.

State lawmakers had considered bringing UTA directly under state control. But local transit agencies typically operate under their own taxing authority and under local control, which makes them more receptive to the needs of riders. The compromise of letting the governor appoint a three-member commission from a list of candidates provided to him by the counties UTA serves, is a fair compromise. Local governments would retain a measure of control, while the governor would represent state interests.

In addition, the State Bonding Commission would have to approve any future debt UTA incurs, which would provide an important check on excessive borrowing.

UTA serves an area that includes an overwhelming majority of Utah’s 3 million people. That area is also the focus of a majority of the state’s highway funds. It makes sense for the state to begin incorporating transit funding into its overall vision for transportation, while still giving UTA a measure of autonomy.