Task force says UTA needs to be reformed, but it can't agree how to do it

Rejects three current proposals for deeper state involvement, will make another attempt to devise a new option.<br>

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune A UTA TRAX train climbs out of downtown Salt Lake City as it heads to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah Monday June 24, 2013. The Salt Lake Chamber and its Utah Transportation Coalition has released a study on the impact of investing in UtahÕs transportation system.

A state task force says the scandal-tainted Utah Transit Authority needs reform, but it isn’t yet sure exactly what shape that should take.

“There is a desire to do something. But we haven’t quite hit it yet,” said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, co-chairman of the 16-member Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force, which has representatives from the Legislature, cities, counties and business groups.

It released Monday a survey showing its members oppose all three options it had proposed for varying degrees of new state oversight of UTA — including a complete takeover that would make UTA a division of the Utah Department of Transportation.

The full-takeover proposal was opposed by 77 percent of the task force members.

Another option called for the state to take over ownership of UTA facilities, but allow UTA to manage operations. New construction would be overseen by UDOT, not UTA — and prioritization of state spending would be up to the Utah Transportation Commission, not the UTA Board.

Also transit and highway projects would compete for the same funding.

The survey showed 85 percent of task force members opposed that option.

A major problem with both of those options is they would require the state to also take over $2 billion in debt that UTA amassed as it built its rail system. Utah State Treasurer David Damschen warned last week that could ruin the state’s credit.

A final option would avoid assuming UTA’s debt by allowing UTA to maintain ownership of its current facilities. But UDOT would build and own future projects. Transit and highway projects would still compete for the same funding.

The survey showed 54 percent of members opposed that, and 46 percent supported it.

“That’s pretty close. One vote would have switched that either way,” Harper said.

He said the task force — formed this year by the Legislature in a reworking of legislation that had proposed to change the structure of the UTA Board — will try again to come up with another option that can garner more support.

Sophia DiCaro, a former legislator who is a member of the task force, suggested giving strong consideration to taking only a small step in the upcoming Legislative session: requiring Utah Senate confirmation for members of the UTA Board.

She noted that 77 percent of the task force support that step, and 92 percent favor “making changes to the current structure of transportation governance in Utah.” She said greater changes could come after that initial change.

Several members also suggested bringing in an outside group to possibly form a new governance proposal, saying its members may be deadlocked otherwise.

Robert Grow, a task force member who leads the planning group Envision Utah, said there is near agreement on one historic major change — favoring funding transit and highway projects statewide out of the same pot of money, if a change in governance can also we worked out. The survey said 92 percent of task force members favor that.

Grow called that a major shift in policy that could “make transit a sustainable part of the state as we double our population” in coming decades.