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'Town centers' and train cars: UTA navigates transit project haunted by ghosts of past scandals

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 07:47 pm

Clearfield station » Agency aims to give away 10-acre, $1.5 million parcel to get out of contract with developer.

The Utah Transit Authority is attempting to pick its way through yet another public relations minefield, one involving key characters from past scandals, including a land giveaway worth $1.5 million to essentially make one of them go away.

At the same time, the UTA is weighing a decision that could disrupt regional plans for smart growth along the Wasatch Front to help attract a big employer with powerful political allies.

The controversy all centers on 60 acres the agency owns around its Clearfield FrontRunner train station and how it will be developed — a decision the UTA board may make in large part as early as Wednesday, even though it has allowed little public comment so far on the matter.

For years, the agency aimed to develop a mix of housing, offices and retail at the Clearfield station to increase transit ridership. Regional planners saw it as one of a string of densely populated "town centers" around rail stops that could accommodate the projected doubling of Utah's population by building skyward instead of sprawling outward.

But Clearfield and Davis County are asking UTA to dump these plans to make way for a train car manufacturing plant to use half the site — trading the hope for utopian development someday for sure-thing, job-producing industry now.

Clearfield has proposed to buy the land for less than half of what UTA figures it is worth. And the city is pushing hard for a quick decision, while UTA staff has sought slower consideration to allow more public input.

The company seeking to build the train plant is Stadler Rail. The 75-year-old business was at the center of a controversial trip to its Switzerland headquarters by some UTA board members in 2015 that played a role in their resignations under fire and raised questions about whether officials were attempting to favor the manufacturer unfairly over others.

Cutting ties • Opportunity for a change of direction at the Clearfield station site comes because of UTA dust-ups with another character in agency controversies — the Thackeray Garn Co., led in part by former Utah House Majority Leader Kevin Garn.

UTA had long partnered with Thackeray Garn for "transit-oriented developments" (TODs) at Clearfield and six other transit stations. But the agency recently cut ties with the company for all of those projects, except one in South Jordan, where construction had progressed too far to dissolve partnerships.

UTA General Counsel Jayme Blakesley, appointed in 2015, said the agency reviewed all its TOD contracts after a 2014 legislative audit criticized sweetheart deals with developers, and these became part of an ongoing federal investigation.

The U.S. attorney's office this month agreed not to prosecute UTA in exchange for its cooperation into continuing probes.

"Thackeray Garn had been involved with former UTA officials in a way that made us uncomfortable," Blakesley now says. "We were trying to negotiate not to have continued involvement with them."

For example, one document released when the deal with federal prosecutors was announced was a UTA letter to Thackeray Garn complaining that two former UTA board members, Chris Bleak and Sheldon Killpack, were invited by the company to invest in a hotel at its TOD project in South Jordan — after voting to approve it.

"It is inappropriate for a UTA board member, officer, or employee to be on both sides of a transit-oriented development project," a UTA letter protested. It also said it was "not the first time" a former UTA board member was involved in such ways with Thackeray Garn projects. (Killpack, a former Senate majority leader, and Bleak, former chief of staff to the House speaker, both told The Salt Lake Tribune they did not end up investing in the South Jordan hotel.)

Blakesley said he also found the contract for the Clearfield station was "not favorable to UTA." He said it had been structured in a way that any profits would go first to Thackeray Garn. "That created a question about if and when that return [for UTA] would ever materialize."

Also, he said, little progress on the project had been made through the years, "So we felt it was in our interest to sever ties with them as quickly as possible."

Calls to Thackeray Garn seeking comment were not returned.

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