Utah Transit Authority Board Chairman H. David Burton spoke Wednesday at a news conference where city and county leaders urged voters to support Proposition 1 — even though UTA is officially neutral and has said it would not campaign for the sales-tax increase.
Burton later said he was not there as an advocate, adding that he was merely presenting information about how UTA would spend money that it could receive from Prop 1. "I was very, very careful in terms of [not] being an advocate, as well as just providing information."
Burton said he even checked with the agency's legal counsel about whether such an appearance would violate UTA resolutions or state law.
"I was told an appearance is not necessarily advocacy," he said. "I hope that was the way it came across."
Utahns for Responsible Transportation Investments, which has raised more than $600,000 to campaign for Prop 1, organized the news conference at the state Capitol.
The political-issues committee campaign director, Abby Albrecht, said, "We encourage you to vote for Proposition 1" because the sales-tax hike of a penny for every $4 in purchases would help cities address long-neglected roads and would expand bus service.
Deputy Sandy Mayor John Hiskey and Davis County Commissioner Bret Millburn, who is also on the UTA Board, also attended the event. Albrecht said the leaders appeared "on their own personal time, speaking on their own personal avail."
UTA has said Prop 1 could boost its revenues by 13 percent, or $39 million a year. In Wasatch Front counties, 40 percent of the Prop 1 tax increase would go to UTA — and the rest would go to cities and counties for roads, bike lanes, trails and other transportation projects.
Burton said the UTA Board has "heard the public loud and clear, make no mistake about that." The agency wants any tax increase to "be used exclusively for increased service, primarily bus service," as the public has requested. He promised that would happen.
"More buses, more places, more often will make transit a more viable option for more people. And more people using transit means better air quality" and less traffic congestion, Burton said. "We'll all see the benefits in our local communities."
Prop 1 critics, primarily Americans for Prosperity, have attacked it for giving more to UTA after recent state audits have criticized the agency for sweetheart deals with developers, high pay and bonuses for executives, and extensive travel.
Burton said "Prop 1 has strong accountability," and UTA must show the state auditor and the public how it spends its money.
Later in the day, Americans for Prosperity Utah Director Evelyn Everton criticized Burton in a press release for appearing at the pro-Prop 1 event.
"How can Utah taxpayers trust the UTA with a $100 million tax hike if we can't even trust them to do what they say they are going to do? UTA promised Utahns that they would remain neutral yet here they are campaigning for a new tax hike," she said.
"Until the UTA starts being honest, Utahns should just say no to Prop 1," she said.
At the Prop 1 news conference, Millburn said the proposal also would allow road maintenance now to help avoid higher-cost repairs later. For every $1 invested now, "we save $6 in repair and up to $25 in reconstruction."
Hiskey said Prop 1 will not only bring more money for roads, but also more for bike paths, trails, sidewalks and other transportation features — which now cannot be funded because of restrictions on some transportation funding sources.