After legislators complained loudly all year about the Utah Transit Authority’s $2 billion debt, the agency’s board gave final approval Monday to borrowing $88.5 million more.
That came as the board passed UTA’s 2018 budget, in which more than $1 of every $4 spent by the agency will go to debt payments. Most of that debt resulted by accelerating — with voter approval — expansion of its rail systems in recent years.
But the main focus Monday was on finalizing the plan in which UTA projects a $403 million operating budget next year, up by 4.7 percent. Of that total, $109.9 million goes to payment on debt.
The new borrowing will help fund several projects, including:
• Covering a $10.2 million cost overrun for a controversial $190 million Provo-Orem bus rapid transit project. UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said the project ran into higher-than-anticipated costs for real estate and contractor expenses.
• Spending $25.3 million to relocate the TRAX station at the soon-to-be-rebuilt Salt Lake City International Airport. Salt Lake City initially wanted UTA to spend $68 million to elevate tracks to take trains into a new gateway building at the airport. After UTA balked at that cost, the city worked out a no-frills, surface-level extension that could cost $50 million less.
• Allocating $30 million to help install “positive train control” systems required by the federal government. They automatically stop trains to prevent some types of collisions, especially train-to-train crashes and derailments caused by excessive speed.
• Using $8 million to begin construction of a new maintenance facility in Salt Lake City to replace its central bus garage.
• Paying $2.4 million for a Tooele bus facility.
• Disbursing $12.6 million for maintenance projects.
A task force created by the Legislature to look at changes to UTA criticized the agency’s heavy debt this year — and its plans for more bonding in coming years, largely to cover maintenance projects. At one point, the panel rejected possible state takeover of the agency because of worry that assuming UTA’s debt could ruin the state’s credit.
That task force is recommending replacing the 16-member UTA board and its president with a three-member commission appointed by the governor. Also, it wants to require future UTA bonding to be approved by a state bonding commission.
That recommendation will be debated during the legislative session, which begins Jan. 22.
The new UTA budget does not include an increase in passenger fares — and it projects that overall fare revenue will drop next year by 5 percent. Officials say lower gas prices have led more people to drive than to take transit.
The budget projects a 3 percent increase in bus service miles.
That comes, in part, from the expected launch of the new Provo-Orem bus rapid transit route in August. UTA is expanding service by 6 percent in Weber and Davis counties, using money from a sales-tax increase voters there approved through passage of Proposition 1. (The proposal was rejected by voters in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties.)
Because of public feedback on the budget calling for even more service, Benson announced that UTA will work with cities and businesses to seek local funding.
For example, he said, Salt Lake County last year provided funds to double-track the Sugar House street care to increase frequency of service there.
Leaders in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County are planning a Tuesday news conference with UTA to announce a “unique effort to encourage greater use of transit during periods of poor air quality.”