Utah Transit Authority officials’ controversial trip to Switzerland — a day after they told legislators that planned projects and service expansion through 2040 would eventually necessitate a 66 percent sales tax increase — was well worth the time and money, the UTA Board chairman reported to its members on Wednesday.
“If I were [the late billionaire] Howard Hughes instead of Greg Hughes, I would pay for every policymaker to go on this trip and see with their own eyes how people can be moved by trains and other forms of transportation that are not automobiles to give people greater access to ski resorts,” Hughes told the board.
The trip took four UTA officials to Switzerland at a cost of at least $10,400 for airfare and hotels to look at mountain transportation systems as a multi-government canyon transportation planning process gets under way. Accompanying them were six legislators — including Hughes, who is also the House Republican whip — who said they paid their own way, or used a mix of personal and campaign funds.
“It’s fun to see eyes light up and people ‘get it’ when you see this firsthand,” Hughes said, adding that much of what Switzerland does could be copied to improve transportation in the Wasatch canyons.
“This trip was not for the faint of heart,” he said. “In those five days, we went to 15 cities, traveled over 500 miles in 11 different modes of transportation” from cog railroads to trams and trains using systems of tunnels.
Hughes said some reciprocal trips are planned.
“There are some people we met there who we are going to bring here to Utah” to talk to policy makers about their experiences.
When Hughes asked if board members had questions, member Keith Bartholomew said he believes international travel pays big dividends for UTA.
“I know it has some political risks, but the benefits of being able to take our stakeholders and opinion leaders around to other sites around the world so they can see what other communities are doing and we could do here” is worth it, he said.
“I only have to look back at similar educational efforts we have had in the past and what the results were” to see support that resulted in building TRAX and FrontRunner lines and in pushing transit-oriented developments, Bartholomew said. No other board members commented on the travel.
International travel has been among controversies that UTA has faced recently. Last year, The Tribune reported that UTA had spent $600,000 in a year and a half on travel. For example, former CEO John Inglish had traveled to Belgium, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Spain (twice), Switzerland, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and 17 U.S. cities. He averaged 1.6 trips a month.
Hughes traveled in that period for UTA to Switzerland, Hong Kong, Australia, San Antonio, Sacramento, Portland (three times) and Washington, D.C.