Former Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell joined the Utah Transit Authority board barely a year ago. Now, he’s poised to be its chairman.
The board’s executive committee nominated him Monday to become the new chairman when current Chairman Robert McKinley’s term ends in December. The full board still must approve that nomination, but it usually does.
“My first priority is to continue to re-establish trust in the community,” Bell said after the nomination.
He said the scandal-tainted agency has worked hard in recent years to rebuild its reputation, including replacing many of its top staff. He noted that most UTA board members also are new.
Bell said the agency has tried to comply with recommendations in a 2014 legislative audit that criticized it for making sweetheart deals with developers, giving high salaries and bonuses, allowing extensive international travel and creating large debt.
“We’ve done everything the audit wanted,” he said. “Also, we pretty well have a new cast of characters” on the board and in top executive positions.
“We’ve changed compensation incentives greatly. The bonus issues, travel issues have been addressed,” he said. “We’ve put in place policies and procedures that are more than state law requires.”
With that, now “it’s steady as she goes,” Bell said, while noting that a state task force is looking at reforming the agency, possibly even allowing the state to take it over or more tightly control its future construction and projects.
Such efforts come partly from concern about the $2 billion debt the agency amassed, as approved by voters, as it accelerated construction of TRAX and FrontRunner rail lines.
“We have a lot of debt,” Bell said, adding that “it’s certainly manageable” and that UTA has a AAA bond rating for its long-term debt. “But that’s something I will keep my eye on.”
Bell said he also has a long-term goal: “Help the public realize that UTA is part of the solution” to challenges the state faces with its “economic future, its population future, our education and air quality.”
He said mass transit will increase in importance as the Wasatch Front is expected to double its population in coming decades.
Bell was appointed to the UTA board in September 2016 by Gov. Gary Herbert, who makes one nomination to the 16-member board. Bell was Herbert’s first lieutenant governor, but he resigned citing financial difficulties from the office’s relatively low pay. He now serves as president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.
When Herbert appointed him, he said Bell “is a known statesman. His interactions with others are always fair and marked by integrity,” and remarked that he “has the perspective and judgment to make decisions in a manner that earns the public’s trust and confidence.”