The newly reorganized Utah Transit Authority Board tried Wednesday to demonstrate that it has cleaned up the agency’s scandal-plagued past regarding “transit-oriented developments,” or TODs.
Board members hope its adoption of a straightforward, objective site selection process will help persuade the state Legislature to allow UTA to participate in even more TODs. These projects entail UTA partnering with communities and developers to use extra UTA-owned land at train stations for housing, retail and commercial projects designed to increase transit ridership.
“I look forward to the time we are able to lift the [Legislature’s] cap on the total number of projects, and would hope that the move we are making now would enable” that, said UTA Board member Kent Millington.
On Wednesday, the board used the new objective ranking system to choose the final three of eight TOD sites already authorized by the Legislature. It awarded points for such things as public support, compatibility with local land-use plans, market readiness, ability to include affordable housing and projected increase in transit ridership.
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 and prosecutors said some former board members enriched developer friends or themselves with sweetheart deals while taxpayers footed the bill. It was among reasons legislators recently reorganized UTA and its board.
The new UTA board chose the final three authorized TOD sites Wednesday based on the new scoring system, and opted not to deviate from that despite lobbying by dozens of communities hoping to make the final cut.
And the winners are:
• The Salt Lake City Central and North Temple stations with 20.7 acres of UTA land.
• The Ogden Central FrontRunner Station with 12.4 acres of excess UTA land.
• The Clearfield FrontRunner Station with 55.5 acres of UTA land.
The agency soon will seek requests for proposals from developers for those sites.
UTA also has five long-term projects already progressing from past deals at the Sandy Civic Center Station, the Jordan Valley TRAX Station, the South Jordan FrontRunner Station, the 3900 South Meadowbrook TRAX station and the Provo intermodal center.
UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said many cities and developers already plan to use non-UTA land near other train stations for projects, largely because they have found that transit attracts people. Board member Beth Holbrook said an example is booming development along 400 South in Salt Lake City attracted by the TRAX line there.
But Christensen said while such non-UTA projects could advance, they may have holes caused by vacant UTA-owned land. So he hoped aloud that lawmakers eventually will OK even more TODs beyond the eight now allowed.
Millington said that raising the cap on TODs would allow “other cities to move forward with their developments in a way that benefits not only the cities but our transit opportunity.”
Holbrook added, “That could be a really valuable tool for all of our communities moving forward.”
Some of the past controversies about UTA transit-oriented developments include:
• A 2014 state audit criticized UTA for prepaying a developer, Jeff Vitek, $10 million to construct a parking garage — which he never built — just after he made a multimillion-dollar deal benefiting then-UTA board member Terry Diehl. It said the agency never got all the money back, yet Vitek was chosen for another TOD in a deal auditors “unduly favored the developer.”
• In 2017, UTA made a deal to avoid federal prosecution by cooperating with a criminal probe into former UTA board members and others concerning possible misuse of taxpayer funds and development around train stations. Diehl later faced related charges, but all were eventually dismissed.
• UTA spent $15.56 million to build two large garages at the Jordan Valley TRAX station, which for years then sat mostly empty. They were erected in large part to help serve expected adjacent transit-oriented development, which ran into problems and was delayed.