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Gov. Herbert: ‘Push the pause button’ on UTA name change

SHARE Gov. Herbert: ‘Push the pause button’ on UTA name change
FILE - Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, questions bill sponsor Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, about HB156 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Any controversy resulting from the major changes made to the Utah Transit Author

FILE - Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, questions bill sponsor Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, about HB156 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Any controversy resulting from the major changes made to the Utah Transit Authority by lawmakers this session that includes a new name for the agency is unfounded, supporters said Thursday.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he wants to "push the pause button" on renaming the Utah Transit Authority despite backing other governance and funding changes made to the agency this session by the Legislature.

"You can call it UTA. You can call it PTA. You can call it UPU or whatever it is they've got out there, but the public is going to make their determination … based on the product, how it works, not on the name," Herbert told the Deseret News.

The governor said he was not aware of "any compelling reason" to change the name or the brand of the transit agency because that doesn't affect whether riders "get there on time and have a good experience."

The proposed name change to Transit District of Utah should be studied further, Herbert said, something he believes the bill allows. The only negativity surrounding UTA, he said, is a result of governance issues.

"I personally don't believe that the public, the people that use mass transit, think the service is bad. I think they like it. I think it gets good grades from people," the governor said.

Supporters of the bill making the changes to UTA held a news conference earlier in the day to say any controversy resulting from the major changes made to UTA by lawmakers is unfounded.

SB136, passed by the House and Senate Wednesday night, also replaces UTA's legal counsel with lawyers from the Utah Attorney General's Office and sets a $150,000 salary limit for members of a new management team that will run the agency.

The remake is tied to using state money for the first time for UTA in the bill, from a shift in growth in gas tax revenues to a new transit fund. The bill also allows local governments to raise sales taxes by 0.2 percent for transit projects.

The lengthy bill, the result of a yearlong study by the Legislature's Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force, goes to the governor for his action.

The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said at the news conference that moving state attorneys into UTA "is one of the key elements of reform. … There is not a better check and balance than that right there."

Schultz said the salary cap applied to what will be three new trustees nominated by counties served by UTA and appointed by the governor will save the agency "upwards of $500,000 a year."

The trustees that make up the management team will replace the current 16-member board of trustees and the top bosses at UTA.

"I do realize that that's not going to be popular for some people inside the organization. And for that, we understand and we're sorry. But it's the right thing to do," Schultz said.

Before the vote, Sherrie Hall Everett, the co-vice chairwoman of the UTA board, distributed a lengthy letter to lawmakers warning that eliminating the agency's six attorneys threatens the federal nonprosecution agreement signed a year ago.

She said the general counsel and his staff have "worked diligently to identify illegal actions" as part of the agreement made with the U.S. Attorney's Office to cooperate with the ongoing federal investigation into transit development projects.

"The investigation is ongoing and essential to resolving the corruption that was strangling the agency," Everett said. The nonprosecution agreement also requires UTA to submit to up to three years of federal monitoring.

Schultz said those issues were raised but were not concerning to the attorney general's office.

Everett also said based on her experience as a marketing professional, the $50 million price tag UTA put on renaming itself the Transit District of Utah is "very conservative."

And she said that the rebranding "would not be able to be phased in over time and as budget permits," as called for in the bill.

Schultz scoffed at the $50 million estimate.

"I can't believe that's even being quoted out there. It's so far from the truth. We're not going to spend money, take away bus routes, take away train routes or whatever it may be, service, to reshuffle the name," he said.

Even changing the name over time sends an important message, Schultz said.

"This is a new day. We're going forward. We're not looking behind us," he said. "When you purchase a business that is failing, that doesn't have the trust, one of the first things that you do is rebrand it, redo the name."

Bret Millburn, a Davis County commissioner and UTA trustee, pointed out at the news conference that the board had backed the new structure for the transit agency earlier this year.

He said it "restores credibility, a culture of accountability, value and service, and better serves the riders, the taxpayers, and many of the rank and file, the good folks who keep things moving, but have been overshadowed by the actions of a few."

Millburn said the transition period in the bill gives the agency time to adjust. The UTA board won't be replaced until Nov. 1, and the attorney general's office steps in 18 months from now.

"This isn't something that needs to happen overnight and immediately," he said. "There are ways these changes can be implemented without impact to service levels. I think we can get creative."