After years of scandal and controversy, the now-restructured Utah Transit Agency is regaining the public’s trust, a new agency survey shows.
“Our trajectory is changing,” Nichol Bourdeaux, UTA’s chief communications and marketing officer, told the agency’s board this week. “There is a huge drop in [negative] feeling about executive salaries, scandals, financial management.”
That new direction shows up in the latest in a series of annual surveys conducted for UTA with the general public (not just riders) about its services and reputation, in part to help guide its marketing. Officials briefed the UTA Board this week about this year’s findings.
“We are in positive territory and have a good, strong base of support in the organization despite all of the change and some of the issues we have faced in the past,” UTA Communications Director Andrea Packer said.
That comes after the Legislature last year reorganized UTA. The reforms included creating a new full-time, three-member board appointed by the governor that replaced a 16-member, part-time board picked by different cities — a structure that critics said diluted oversight and accountability. Most former top administrators have also left the agency.
State audits had criticized UTA for high executive salaries, extensive international travel, large debt and sweetheart deals with developers. The agency in 2017 made a deal with federal prosecutors for immunity to assist in criminal probes of past officials and board members.
One question the annual survey asks is, “Overall do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of the Utah Transit Authority?” Support had dipped in recent years amid bad publicity, but this year it held steady.
The survey showed that 64% of respondents held favorable opinions of UTA, 19% were negative and 15% were neutral.
The survey also asked an open-ended question — where responses are not suggested — asking “why is your opinion of UTA worse today?”
Back in 2015, 29% volunteered that scandal and corruption lowered their opinion of the agency. That dropped to 8% this year.
Also in 2015, 23% listed high executive wages as a reason they disliked the agency, and that also has dropped to 8%. Agency financial mismanagement was the complaint of 21% in 2015, now down to 15%. And while 20% earlier lamented the poor use of tax dollars, that has dropped to 8%.
“You see a trend in the other direction where things of the past are going away, and [members of the public] are not thinking of the things that we used to be associated with,” Bourdeaux said.
“There is a big opportunity for UTA to humbly communicate that it is on track, moving in the right direction and doing the things that the public wants,” said Chad Harris, managing partner of R&R Partners, a marketing firm under contract to UTA.
UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said the best way to do that would be to avoid any more negative press. “I would love to keep that publicity at zero,” he said.
Bourdeaux said survey findings suggest some messages that UTA may push.
“What are our messages? We did the reforms. We’ve moved past those kind of things. And now we are going onto a different messaging strategy of not apologizing, moving on, new day and those kinds of things,” she said.
The survey also looks at the public opinion of services offered, and what may persuade people to use transit more.
It found that 77% of people said they have a favorable impression of TRAX trains, 75% do for FrontRunner but only 47% do for bus service.
The survey asked what concerns people had about riding the different forms of transit. Among the top concerns for both trains and buses were lack of convenient routes, concern about personal safety on them and fares.
It asked whether several conditions might make people more likely to ride transit — and to rank each on a scale from one to seven, where one was “definitely not” and seven was “definitely.”
At the top of the list was adding more coverage and routes (average score of 5.21). Following it were adding more frequency of service (5.10); riding transit if traffic and congestion worsen (4.89); offering more evening service (4.55); helping improve poor air quality (4.27); and moving to transit because of higher gas prices (4.05).