For about a decade now, the Utah Transit Authority has managed to find a way to repeatedly throw itself in front of the TRAX train, whether it’s the ridiculously lavish compensation packages and exorbitant bonuses, the posh globe-trotting “fact-finding” junkets, the self-serving real estate deals, the secrecy and defensiveness and the mountains of debt piling up.
It would’ve been at least somewhat forgivable if it didn’t offer such mediocre service, and that may be generous.
The public was right to be suspicious and it’s hardly surprising that, when UTA went to voters asking for another $108 million, seven of the 17 counties laughed them out of town.
Honestly, the most astonishing aspect is that, faced with a slew of audits and news reports about malfeasance and mismanagement, it took so long for Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature to do anything about the renegade organization.
It got so bad that in April the U.S. Attorney’s office announced UTA had agreed to the appointment of an independent watchdog so the agency could avoid potential criminal prosecution.
“There is still a very active investigation into misconduct by individuals,” Jon Huber, U.S. attorney for Utah said in April. A spokeswoman for the office declined to elaborate Tuesday.
UTA, with typical chutzpah, tried to spin it as the agency being “cleared” of wrongdoing before presumably going off to help O.J. Simpson find the real killer.
Here’s the rub: Despite UTA’s problems, we need public transit. By 2040, we’ll have another half million people crammed into the Wasatch Front and nearly 4.5 million people statewide.
And it has been refreshing to see turnover in the top executive positions at UTA, slimmer salaries and new leadership on the board. All of that is good.
But it is the basic structural reform that we are now starting to address that is really needed to get the proverbial buses running on time.
And, to be sure, the blueprint that a task force of legislators and community leaders released this week would be a vast improvement, even if it misses the mark in some regards.
There’s no question the 16-member volunteer board needed to go. It was nonsense to think such a large group could ever provide the kind of oversight that is needed. They were at the mercy of UTA brass, which proved itself to be a pretty merciless group.
But the recommendation of three full-time commissioners appointed by the governor goes too far.
As Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie said, it vests too much power at the state level. And UTA is, in the end, not a state entity. It provides service regionally and much of its money comes from taxes levied by local governments. They deserve to have a say beyond merely recommending names to the governor.
The three-member commission also risks getting too parochial and missing the bigger picture, the holistic, region-wide transit planning.
Instead of three, I’d like to see a board consisting of five part-time commissioners — one appointed jointly by Salt Lake City and County; one from Utah and Tooele counties; one from Davis, Weber and Box Elder; one appointed by the governor; and one member from either the Wasatch Front Regional Council or Envision Utah.
It would make the commission more responsive to the constituents they represent, instead of the governor who appointed them, and would broaden the viewpoints, while keeping it more manageable than the current 16-member board.
Some of the budgetary constraints envisioned for UTA are positive, particularly the recommendation that the State Bonding Commission approve new debt for the agency that is already $2 billion in the hole. And allowing UTA projects to compete for funding from the state transportation fund is a major step in the right direction.
There should also be stringent oversight of any UTA real estate deals — where UTA has landed itself in trouble in the past — including approval by the board, the governor and legislative leadership.
All of these moves are long overdue, but hopefully they can get UTA back on track, so to speak, because if we want to maintain our economic growth, manage our air quality, mitigate congestion and sustain our quality of life, mass transit has to be a key part of the solution.
And that starts with rebuilding the public trust.