Utah Transit Authority executives gave “wildly disproportionate,” “crazy” discounts in a new pass program for Brigham Young and Utah Valley universities — without UTA board permission and in violation of its rules, a watchdog trustee asserts.
“It’s another example I think of why the Legislature needs to disband the UTA board and replace it with another governance structure this session,” North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor, a UTA board member, said Thursday.
UTA disputes the claims, saying the pass program is reasonable, fulfills the agency’s mission and did not require board OK.
The complaints were parting shots by the maverick who constantly criticizes the agency. Taylor, a Utah National Guard major, is deploying for a year to Afghanistan, and will be replaced on the board with a temporary appointment by the Weber County Council of Governments.
“I hope it [the board] is reorganized and there’s not a board to come back to, at least not this one,” Taylor said. A legislative task force has proposed replacing UTA’s current board and CEO with a three-member commission appointed by the governor, saying that would help restore trust in the scandal-tainted agency.
Taylor said he and other board members were surprised when UTA last month announced new 10-year contracts for $1 million annually with BYU and UVU for passes for all their students, faculty and family members. Officials estimated the program will provide unlimited transit service to 100,000 people per year.
In a letter this week to UTA Board Chairman Greg Bell, Taylor protested that the action is “wildly disproportionate to the cost of similar passes available” to taxpayers generally, and that UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson exceeded his authority in signing contracts without board review or approval.
Written UTA policy allows Benson to discount transit passes for “students and employees” of educational institutions, Taylor said in an interview. “He’s more than doubled that by including all family members. That should have been brought to the board to decide if it’s a good thing to do.”
Taylor also complained, “This has committed the agency to providing these transit services at a hugely discounted price” for a decade. “I think he greatly exceeded the written authority granted to him in the policy, and that the contract should be voided.”
However, UTA issued a statement saying the actions complied with its policy.
Long-standing policy “authorizes UTA’s President/CEO to negotiate agreements with educational institutions and provide reasonable discounts,” the statement said, adding that UTA’s general counsel reviewed the new agreements “and confirms they are in compliance with UTA’s existing policy.”
The board, according to the UTA statement, “has had knowledge and understanding of the long-standing agreements made with our educational partners through the years.”
Taylor said the discounts offered are extreme.
He said if the estimated 100,000 people a year actually use the passes, the $2 million combined paid by the universities for them comes out to $20 each.
“An average Joe taxpayer for the same pass pays $198 a month: $2,376 a year. I think that’s just crazy that this has been discounted so much,” Taylor said.
His letter to the UTA board chairman adds, “Another way of looking at this: it takes only 842 Utah taxpayers who buy annual passes at the full price to pay the same $2 million that UVU and BYU are paying for their 100,000-plus students, employees and family members.”
UTA’s statement said the cost should be calculated differently. “Since educational institutions must purchase passes for 100 percent of their enrollment, UTA prices these large pass contracts based on projected usage and not on a cost per pass basis.”
It added, “The agreements with BYU and UVU are a continuation of UTA’s mission of increasing transit access and ridership, which will benefit all Wasatch Front residents.”
Taylor also said in his letter that UTA reported in September “that university students account for 31 percent of UTA riders, but that their pass programs only pay 16 percent of revenues….. Meanwhile, Utah taxpayers keep telling me ‘UTA is too expensive.’”
UTA responded in its statement that its long-standing pass programs with colleges “have increased ridership by providing access to public transit resulting in millions of trips a year, enhancing the air quality in communities along the Wasatch Front, and reducing congestion on and around the various campuses served by UTA.”
It added, “These pass programs generate additional revenue for UTA and greatly increase ridership with no cost to taxpayers. Partnering with colleges also saves significant taxpayer dollars by reducing the need to construct additional parking facilities on campus.”
Taylor also complained that the board has given the CEO no limits on how much he may discount passes to universities or businesses, nor how long contracts may last.
“He can discount it by 99 percent if he wants to based on this policy, and make it for 99 years,” Taylor said.
“This is not what proper checks and balances look like,” Taylor wrote to Bell.
He added, “The UTA board has become a rubber stamp for agency executives, and must reassert its authority.”
Taylor added, “I call on the board to hold the executives who negotiated this agreement and overstepped their policy boundaries accountable, to void and renegotiate this contract” and review subsidies provided for all university pass programs.