New UTA chief stresses improving service, says agency enters ‘a new day and a new beginning’ after past scandals

(Photo courtesy of UTA) Carolyn Gonot, the new executive director of UTA.

New Utah Transit Authority Executive Director Carolyn Gonot sees the agency as starting fresh after years of scandal that climaxed in major Legislature-ordered reforms — and says she aims to focus on improving service.

“It is a new day and a new beginning for all of us…. It’s refreshing,” she said in an interview Wednesday after the UTA board formally appointed her, and she introduced herself to top agency officials. She plans to start the new job Aug. 19.

“It reminds me of 22 years ago coming in and being part of an agency that had just started and had a new board,” Gonot (pronounced like doughnut) said about her current employer, Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) in California’s Silicon Valley. At various times, she oversaw most types of its operations.

VTA handled rapid growth and wrestled with how to balance service frequency versus expanding its coverage area. UTA faces such issues now, with a new three-member board — and with her as the only UTA top executive ever promoted from outside the agency.

“Service is key,” she said. “That’s the primary message: Service is key — how we deliver it, how we continue to make the existing service better and also serve the growing needs here. That’s going to be the focus as we run a strong, stable yet innovative agency.”

Gonut wants UTA to work closely with communities to handle what officials project will be a doubling of the Wasatch Front’s population in the next 30 years.

“UTA has to be at the table in the early planning phases as growth is starting to occur so that you’re not caught later trying to put in something [too late], or you’re there too early putting in something that’s not going to be productive,” she said. “You have to have partnerships with the local communities, and that I’ve actually done for many years.”

Members of the UTA board said Wednesday that Gonut was chosen largely because her experience matches what they believe the agency needs.

“There’s very few areas I haven’t touched” in her many jobs at VTA, she said, listing some: planning, marketing, transit-oriented developments and maintenance.

Perhaps most notably, she oversaw extending the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway to San Jose. “It should be finished later this year,” she said. “We are $100 million under budget,” and it will change VRT’s overall operations dramatically as they connect to the service.

While Gonut is well aware of UTA’s scandals — ranging from controversy over high executive salaries to sweetheart deals with developers who had ties to board members — she said she was drawn here because of the agency’s good reputation for operations.

“Employees are your biggest asset,” she said, adding that she has met and has been impressed by many from UTA through the years at conferences. “It’s a wonderful agency.”

In addition to being impressed by the agency’s reputation, she said she also applied because UTA “mirrors how VTA has been in the past … the idea of how you deal with growing needs. People want service, but you also have to do it efficiently — and how do you handle that?”

She looks forward to working with UTA’s newly formed full-time board, one created by the Legislature to replace the former 16-member, part-time board that was criticized for a lack of accountability and not keeping a close enough watch on the agency.

“With board members that are full time, I think it’s great because you will not only work with them but collaborate” daily and closely to support each other, she said.

Gonot is taking a pay cut to accept the job. Her wages last year at VTA were $281,645 in high-cost-of-living Silicon Valley, according to TransparentCalifornia.com. The UTA board on Wednesday approved paying her a base salary of $221,423 a year in a three-year contract — about a fifth less than the $273,981 a year former UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson was paid in 2017, his last full year.

(Benson, the last permanent executive director, also left amid allegations by legislators that he improperly received a big severance package, worth perhaps $282,000.)

“I’m really looking forward to this opportunity," she said. “It’s going to be a really wonderful journey for all of us.”