A state task force is proposing major reforms in the oversight, operation and funding of the scandal-tainted Utah Transit Authority — but stopped short of seeking a full state takeover of the agency.
The group on Monday also proposed to make UTA eligible for state funds that until now have been reserved just for highways. That could allow expansion of bus and train service without the need for taxpayers to approve higher local sales taxes for transit — which has been voted down by taxpayers who mistrust the agency.
“My hope is it does put trust back” into the agency, said Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, co-chairman of the Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force, created by the Legislature this year.
A skeletal proposal — which the task force says will be fleshed out more in coming weeks — calls for eliminating the current 16-member board that oversees UTA, as well as the agency’s president and CEO.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the other co-chairman of the task force, said the current UTA board and president would be replaced by a new three-member panel similar to the State Tax Commission or a county commission.
The governor would appoint its members from nominees proposed by cities and counties in the six-county Wasatch Front area served by UTA.
Also, a new nine-member advisory board — also appointed by cities and counties in the UTA service area — would be created to set the salary of the new transit commissioners, and to provide advice to them and serve as liaisons with local governments, riders and other stakeholders.
Because of $2 billion in debt that UTA now carries, the proposal would require any future bonding to be approved by the separate Utah Bonding Commission.
The proposal also would make UTA eligible for state Transportation Investment Fund money, which until now could be used only for projects that expand highway capacity.
Final approval of state money for transit would rest with the Utah Transportation Commission — which currently oversees highway funding. It would allow highway and transit projects to compete for that money, and prioritize them.
The task force earlier had considered a full state takeover of UTA but backed off over worries that taking over UTA’s $2 billion debt could ruin the state’s credit rating.
The task force was asked to look at UTA after years of controversy over high pay for executives, extensive international travel, sweetheart deals with developers and abandoned attempts to close some meetings to the public.
Also last spring, UTA and prosecutors announced the transit agency was given immunity in an ongoing federal probe into former officials — including scrutiny of its real-estate deals. UTA agreed to submit to several years of federal oversight and pledged cooperation with investigators.
Schultz said such problems created public mistrust that led voters in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties to reject Proposition 1 in 2015 to increase transit taxes to expand service. (However, it did pass in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties).
Schultz said, with current debt, UTA likely could not expand services for years without passage of something like Prop 1 — and public mistrust makes that unlikely. He said the current proposal could shore up its reputation, and also provide state money to improve service and help solve overall transportation challenges.
But he added that state lawmakers have made clear they would not approve state money for UTA without reform and some state oversight. Schultz said the proposals could allow the governor to remove officials if problems occur, and provide oversight by state transportation and bonding commissions for state money.
However, several members of the task force said many questions remain to be resolved before the plan goes to the Legislature for consideration in January. Among those questions are what would be the exact extent of state control, who would nominate commissioners, what qualifications would be required and what would be the maximum length of commissioners’ terms.
Some task-force members expressed concern that the proposal calls for too much state control.
Cedar Hills Mayor Gary Gygi, a member of the task force, said, “You say it is not a takeover by the state, but it sounds like that.” He worried local areas served by UTA may not have enough say.
Similarly, Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie, a task force member and a former Utah Senate president, questioned whether the state may have too much control over local spending by the agency — and said the idea needs more scrutiny.
UTA officials were present at the meeting, but chose not to comment when the task force called for public input.
After the meeting, Matt Sibul, UTA director of governmental affairs, said the agency had not seen details of the proposal until they were presented at the meeting Monday. “So we want a chance to digest it, learn more and ask questions and understand how it would actually function.”
He was encouraged that the task force is no longer looking at a complete state takeover of UTA. “I think they took the right approach in focusing on how can we make governance better at UTA.”