UTA will try to avoid the scandals of the past as it awards new development deals around train stations

(Courtesy Hamilton Partners | File photo) A 2017 artist rendering of the new East Village transit-oriented development at the Sandy Civic Center TRAX Station.

Using a new process designed to avoid repeating past scandals, the Utah Transit Authority board is about to pick three winners and dozens of losers among communities vying to partner with the agency to use its extra land near train stations for “transit-oriented developments” (TODs).

In the past, the former UTA board simply chose sites and developers based on whatever criteria members desired. It led to a parade of scandals. Audits said some board members enriched developer friends or themselves while taxpayers footed an unfair bill. The practice is among the reasons legislators just reorganized UTA and its board.

Now, the new, smaller, full-time board is basing decisions on objective rankings that award points for such things as public support, compatibility with local land-use plans, market readiness, ability to include affordable housing and how well a TOD may help improve transit ridership. Developers will be picked after site selection, not before nor at the same time.

The Legislature currently limits UTA to developing no more than eight TODs, and the agency has five long-term projects already in the works from past deals at Sandy Civic Center Station, the Jordan Valley Station, the South Jordan FrontRunner Station, the 3900 South Meadowbrook TRAX station and the Provo intermodal center. That leaves three more TODs to award for now.

The UTA board unveiled this week which projects appear to top its new rankings, and is giving cities a chance to argue whether they are accurate and fair, or why they should change. The board could make final selections for new TODs as early as Wednesday.

Members are preparing for a deluge of last-minute lobbying. “It can be incredibly beneficial” to hear arguments from cities about whether proposals are fair, said board member Beth Holbrook.

“The policy puts this system analysis tool in place so the decision is objective,” said Paul Drake, UTA's senior manager for real estate and transit-oriented development.

The top ranked developments overall are:

• The Salt Lake City Central and North Temple stations with 20.7 acres of UTA land. It scored 59.8 points.

• The Ogden Central FrontRunner Station with 12.4 acres of excess UTA land, with a score of 49.9.

• The Clearfield FrontRunner Station with 55.5 acres of UTA land, with a 40.8 score.

Among others that finished just behind those are: American Fork FrontRunner Station, 40.6 points; Orem Central FrontRunner Station, 39.6; Roy FrontRunner Station, 39.5; Murray Central TRAX/FrontRunner Station, 38.8; West Jordan City Center Station, 38.7.

Drake said the tool that produced that rankings was designed partly to favor projects that are the most ready and would give UTA the most for its investment in areas that have nearby amenities that could help draw people. He said TODs in urban areas score higher with such criteria than those in the suburbs.

But the agency also produced two variations, based on recommendations from advisory groups, that would give more weight to TODs that might generate more affordable housing, and those that may serve as a catalyst to attract more investment in an area that may now lack it.

Using the alternative designed to give bonus points for projects most able help bring more affordable housing, the top-ranked projects would be: Ogden Central, 61.9 points; Murray Central, 58.8; and Salt Lake Central/North Temple. Others just behind it are Midvale Fort Union, 49; Clearfield, 48; 1300 South Ballpark in Salt Lake City, 46/9; and West Jordan City Center, 46.1.

And using the alternative to give bonuses for projects that could serve as a catalyst to improve an area without many nearby amenities, the top three are: West Jordan City Center, 43.1 points; American Fork, 40.7; and Clearfield, 39.4. Others finishing just behind them under that measure are Roy, 35.8; Historic Sandy, 25.2; Draper Town Center, 24.6; and the Old Bingham Highway Station in West Jordan, 24.6 points.

Board members made clear that they intend to choose only sites where formal station area plans have been adopted in concert with cities and communities. It approved one this week, for example, in Clearfield — which is in the top three overall choices, and where the city has lobbied hard for years for a TOD to help revitalize surrounding areas.

Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said UTA chose some sites and developers in the past without such plans in place — and controversy followed when plans put forward by developers did not match local visions. With station plans in place in advance, he said, it will be easier for potential developers to see what residents want and avoid problems.

Christensen said UTA officials also asked legislators about the possibility of obtaining permission for more TODs in the future but noted it found little appetite to allow that for now.