UTA board members suggest delaying its Legislature-ordered $50M name change

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) UTA's new long "BRT" (bus rapid transit) is parked in front of the Capitol during Transit Day on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City Friday February 2, 2018.

The Utah Transit Authority Board wondered Wednesday if squishy wording in a new law might allow wiggle room to put off changing the agency’s name, as ordered by the Legislature.

Senate Bill 136 requires UTA to adopt the name Transit District of Utah, or TDU, “over time and as resources permit.” Some board members suggested that language could be used to delay action until after next year’s Legislature meets, perhaps avoiding what some argue is a waste of up to $50 million to alter signs, buses and trains.

UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said the agency plans to change the name as ordered, and is studying how best to do so at the lowest cost and with the least confusion possible.

“Fortunately, they gave us some time to do that,” he said. “So depending on where we are in implementing that name change, next January [when the Legislature convenes] there may be an opportunity to revisit it.”

His comments came as the 16-member, part-time UTA Board met for the first time since the Legislature essentially fired it — replacing it as of Nov. 1 with a full-time, three-member commission that lawmakers argue will be better able to avoid scandals that tarnished the agency.

Board members didn’t gripe about being replaced, and even praised the bill for raising needed revenue. But some criticized the name change and for ordering the agency to use the Attorney General’s Office instead of its own attorneys, and for making some new local transit taxes optional instead of mandatory.

Benson said UTA figures the name change will cost about $28 million to change signs and repaint buses and trains, plus another $22 million or so for changing other tickets, passes, contracts and websites — or $50 million total.

Legislators have argued that the estimates are high, and said a name change is needed to build trust and show that the agency is being restructured to leave behind its troubled past of high executive wages, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers.

“Being a marketing professional, I think there is a gross, fundamental flaw in thinking that you can transition over time,” Board Vice Chairwoman Sherrie Hall Everett said Wednesday. Different names, she added, could confuse the “50 million riders a year who need to know what bus to get on, and which station to be at.”

Gov. Gary Herbert has opposed the name change as unneeded and wasteful — saying the money would be better spent on improving services. He has said he also hopes the Legislature will reconsider it.

The new name of Transit District of Utah, or TDU, was the result of a thorough analysis by marketing professionals, Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, said. “Just kidding, that didn’t really happen,” he quickly added.

Everett also complained about the Legislature requiring UTA to disband its own legal counsel office and use the attorney general. Legislators argue that will save money, and that state lawyers also may help prevent more UTA scandals.

“I find it highly ironic that the Attorney General’s Office isn’t good enough for the Legislature … but we should have the Attorney General’s Office,” she said, referring to legislation to allow the Legislature to use its own attorneys to intervene in court cases challenging state law.

The governor vetoed that bill, Senate Bill 171, but lawmakers say there is a chance they will have enough votes to override the veto.

Everett said UTA’s in-house attorneys handle specialized transit issues “and have saved this agency millions and millions of dollars.”

Board Chairman Greg Bell, a former Utah lieutenant governor, lamented that some early proposals for sales taxes hikes for transit were changed, which may hurt prospects for future revenue needed by UTA.

Initially, early drafts would have imposed a 0.25 percent sales tax increase in Salt Lake and Utah counties — where voters rejected the increase in 2015 — if the county authorities didn’t adopt it by 2022.

But in the bill that passed, the tax hike is optional. If counties fail to impose it by June 30, 2022, they lose the option.

“That was a real mistake,” Bell said, arguing the state should have imposed automatic tax hikes. Passage is made somewhat easier, however, by allowing county officials to raise the taxes if they choose without ballot approval by voters.

A task force created by SB136 is expected to look at proposed tax hikes in the new law, all of which have deadlines or effective dates after next year’s Legislature meets.