Lawmakers kill once-ordered UTA name change, and offer relief to electric, hybrid car owners

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Capitol Connector, route 500, picks up passengers at the Utah Stage Capitol building. UTA is providing stepped-up bus service to the Capitol for the Legislature. Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Transit Authority bus arrives at the Utah State Capitol in January.

Carlton Christensen, the chairman of the Utah Transit Authority Board, says his appointment certificate may soon be a collector’s item — so he framed it.

“By law, it had to say I was appointed to the 'Transit District Utah’ board,” he said. “It may have been about the only thing UTA ever produced with that name on it.”

On Monday, the Legislature killed that Transit District Utah name — which technically had been UTA’s official moniker for much of the past year. The Senate gave final passage to an amended SB72 and sent it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his consideration.

The name change was ordered last year as part of a massive bill to restructure the scandal-tainted agency — and was intended to highlight that the agency is changing. But UTA complained it would cost $50 million to rebrand everything from buses to trains, uniforms, signs and stationery.

That, plus complaints from people such as the governor, led lawmakers to rethink the move, and they announced that they would change the name back this legislative session. So UTA never stopped using its old name.

SB72 also makes other more significant tweaks to the big transportation bill that passed last year.

It allows owners of clean-fuel cars to lower their new higher registration fees by volunteering to be guinea pigs for a tax on the miles they drive.

Such cars now largely escape the gasoline tax. So lawmakers imposed higher registration fees on them: $60 for electric cars, $26 for plug-in hybrids and $10 for gas hybrids. They will increase annually until 2021, when electric cars will pay $120, plug-in hybrids will pay $52 and gas hybrids will pay $20.

The new bill gives owners of such cars the option to participate instead in a “road user charge” pilot program to begin next year.

It will impose a tax for every mile driven — so vehicles that travel fewer miles pay lower taxes. The maximum possible charge is the same as the new higher registration fees. Officials say that someday, such a tax system may replace gas taxes.

Amendments approved Monday also alter how members of the new UTA Board will be appointed.

The governor last year had refused to appoint initial nominees sent as required by law from some counties, and asked for more names. Utah County balked, and even filed suit contending the governor had to appoint one of its selections — until months later when they all agreed to appoint Kent Millington as a compromise.

The new procedure will require more initial nominees from more government entities. The governor then has 60 days to make an appointment, or the decision reverts back to the largest county commission or council in the district.