In distributing talking points to Utah Transit Authority board members last week, UTA CEO Jerry Benson acknowledges what has been known for a while: Utah’s primary transit agency can’t expand its services, including several projects in Utah’s long-term transportation plans, without more tax money.
Keeping up with those plans would require moving the agency’s sales tax portion – now at .69 cent in Salt Lake County – up to a penny, a 45 percent increase. A 2015 tax increase for transportation was rejected by county voters, largely because of public concerns about UTA oversight and spending.
Benson is more hopeful than practical when he says UTA has made progress in gaining the public’s trust. He talks transparency, but the ghosts keep rising from the mist.
So many ghosts, in fact, that UTA is now under federal monitoring while the U.S. Department of Justice investigates possible corruption in UTA-related developments. That investigation has already resulted in Terry Diehl being indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to his role in UTA development projects while he was a UTA board member. Other charges are possible.
The monitoring also has surfaced old agreements to hand out more than $800,000 to two retiring executives. The agreements thankfully were canceled after much smaller bonuses triggered public outrage, but no one at UTA was offering up that information before the federal monitor showed up.
And in February, UTA refused to seat a new, reform-minded board member, North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor, claiming it would violate nepotism rules because Taylor’s father is a FrontRunner operator. If Taylor was seated, his father would need to be fired, UTA alleged. Taylor took his seat on the board, but only after State Auditor John Dougall stepped in to say Taylor’s appointment does not violate rules.
Taylor also has brought attention to UTA’s media policy, which he says discourages board members from speaking to news media. This is a public agency with public oversight. If UTA officials are concerned about inconsistent messaging if board members speak to the media, it’s because UTA has not adequately informed them, something that has been in evidence for years.
The biggest problem for UTA is the continued mindset that they just need more time, not more change. Minimizing public concerns worked well for decades when large chunks of money came from Washington. Now, UTA is nearly $2 billion in debt and can’t progress without Utahns voting to send them more money.
We’ll say it again: UTA needs bold steps, so bold they can’t come from UTA itself. It needs a new oversight structure, one that doesn’t spread responsibility so thin that no elected official can ever be held responsible for it. The current structure has produced the insular UTA culture of fat salaries, poor transparency and 46 years of leadership that has always come from within.
Give us a visible and robust management structure we can believe in so we can get mass transit back on track.