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UTA’s $50 million price tag for name change doesn’t stop bill from passing

SHARE UTA’s $50 million price tag for name change doesn’t stop bill from passing
FILE - Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

FILE - Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Even a $50 million price tag for changing the name of the Utah Transit Agency wasn't enough to derail a massive transportation bill in the House Tuesday.

SB136, which would change the name of UTA to Transit District of Utah, passed the House 54-14 and returns to the Senate because of new language that makes the Utah Attorney General's Office the agency's legal counsel.

The House sponsor of SB136, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, dismissed the UTA estimate for the name change, saying signage could be changed over time to keep costs down.

"We've had UTA officials tell us (it could cost) up to $50 million to make the name change. I think that shows the concerns that we’re dealing with," Schultz, a longtime critic of the agency's management, said.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, questioned the need for the new name.

"TDU doesn't really have a great sound to it," she said, calling UTA "a great name. What's wrong with that name? I mean, you change a name, it doesn't change the culture."

Matt Sibul, UTA government relations director, said the switch to a new name would have to be done all at once, "everything from 6,400 bus stops to 700 buses to all of our trains, all of our fare products. Everything."

The bill dramatically alters UTA's management structure, replacing the 16-member board of trustees with a three-member team that would be responsible for running the agency.

Schultz substituted the bill on the House floor to make another management change, replacing UTA's general counsel with legal counsel from the Utah Attorney General's Office.

"I think there's still concerns. I have concerns with the administration, to be honest with you," Schultz said earlier in the day. "There are problems."

Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, said it was critical to address "the current state of the UTA and the dumpster fire that we see there, burning public funds and just raging out of control."

UTA has been the subject of critical legislative audits over the years that cited excessive executive bonuses and raised ethical concerns about developments around transit stops.

A year ago, UTA signed a nonprosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office, agreeing to cooperate with the ongoing investigation into transit development deals and submit to up to three years of federal monitoring.

Sherrie Hall Everett, the co-vice chairwoman of the UTA board of trustees, told the Deseret News the agency's general counsel, Jayme Blakesley, has expertise the attorney general's office can't match.

"He manages all the (U.S. Department of Justice) investigations and works with the federal monitor," Everett said. "It will create conflicts of interest in the A.G.'s office because they referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney's Office."

The bill had already been amended in committee to remove any new state revenue sources for transportation, including a new state fund for transit projects. All that remains are new, higher vehicle registration fees for electric and hybrid cars.