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UTA officials travel the world at cost of more than $600,000
Transit » In a year and a half, the authority spent $610,000 on global expeditions.
First Published Sep 01 2012 11:52 am • Last Updated Dec 25 2012 11:30 pm

His Utah-based job recently took him 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 out-of-state trips a month and appears to have been on the road almost constantly.

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This frequent flier wasn’t an airline pilot, diplomat or tour guide. It was John Inglish, chief executive officer of the Utah Transit Authority.

The mostly advisory CEO job for the public agency operating buses and trains was created at the same time that Inglish, longtime UTA general manager, was appointed to it two years ago with an annual salary of $364,406. He retired in April and the position won’t be filled.

UTA General Manager Michael Allegra — who took over day-to-day UTA operations from Inglish in 2010 and has annual compensation of $319,360 — traveled almost as much, averaging 1.4 trips a month during the past 2.5 years, including to Australia, Cuba, Switzerland, Vancouver and several unidentified Asian countries, according to data obtained through open-records requests.

Meanwhile UTA board members also traveled abroad to such places as Australia, Hong Kong and Switzerland. The entire board last year held one of its monthly meetings in Portland, Ore., to see transit projects there. UTA even has paid to take mayors or other elected leaders from Herriman, Murray, Ogden, Provo, Taylorsville and West Valley City to see out-of-state transit projects.

"That’s absolutely absurd," says Claire Geddes, an activist and frequent critic of UTA management. "How can they possibly rationalize that kind of travel with the budget problems they have? This is a group of people who are out of touch and have been for a long time. Utahns should be appalled."

But UTA officials say they receive great value from travel, learning from mistakes and successes of other transit agencies. They say the travel is necessary to lobby for federal money and helps in developing strategies to change Utah’s "car-first" culture.

"To me, it is the best education, the best thing we have ever done," Allegra says about the travel, even if it came as fares have been raised twice in the past two years as the agency struggled to make ends meet amid tough economic times.

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Contrasts » Comparing UTA with the state’s other largest transportation agency — the Utah Department of Transportation, which builds and maintains highways — reveals big differences in how much travel each allows, how it is tracked and the philosophy behind it.

Information provided in response to open-records requests shows that in the past year and a half, UTA spent $610,840 on out-of-state travel — more than twice as much as UDOT’s outlay of $275,250.

Little of UDOT’s travel was out of the country while UTA’s international travel was extensive.

UDOT was able to produce a list of out-of-state travel by employee, including the cost, destination and purpose of each trip. UTA was unable to do that, saying it was limited to providing travel cost totals for its various offices. At the request of The Salt Lake Tribune, UTA manually researched travel lists for some top officials.

While UTA board members took numerous out-of-state and international trips, members of the Utah Transportation Commission — which oversees UDOT — took none.

Meghan Holbrook serves on both boards (and is the Transportation Commission’s representative on the UTA board).

"They are different animals," she says. "For example, the Transportation Commission’s job is to make sure we are putting the right amount of money on the right road project, and prioritize projects correctly," so official travel is mainly in Utah.

"But UTA has a very different strategic vision. It is trying to change the culture here from ‘cars-first’ to convince people to use mass transit. Most of the places that have a lot of experience with that are in Europe or the East Coast of the United States," Holbrook added. "So that’s where they travel."

UDOT philosophy » Nile Easton, spokesman for UDOT, says his agency works hard to ensure any out-of-state travel is focused on legitimate UDOT missions. "Every single one of those trips has to be approved by the executive director."

The department will allow travel, he says, if it "provides better training for our people, or something that brings new ideas, technology or innovations back to Utah."

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