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UTA survey: Scandal memories are fading away

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah Transit Authority officials at a news conference on April 4, 2017 about a deal with federal prosecutors to avoid charges in exchange for cooperating in a probe involving then-current and former board members.

The Utah Transit Authority says the public is starting to forget about its past scandals, and its approval ratings are rising.

That’s according to an annual survey that it conducted in January, along with focus groups, to see what the public thinks about the agency and its services.

The reported improvement comes after the Legislature restructured the agency in 2018 amid controversy about high executive salaries, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers — and just after UTA avoided federal charges by agreeing to help in a probe of former board members.

The Legislature replaced UTA’s old part-time 16-member board appointed by various government jurisdictions with a full-time, three-member group named by the governor that is designed to better watchdog the agency. Also, most top UTA executives were replaced in recent years by people with lower salaries who now travel less under new rules.

“Memories of past issues are recognized as being in the past and the details are starting to fade,” UTA Chief Communications Officer Andrea Packer told the agency’s board this week in a report about survey findings.

In recent years when surveys and focus groups asked open-ended questions about what comes to mind when residents think of UTA, she said about a third would volunteer responses about scandals or corruption.

“Now it’s in the single digits,” she said.

She said that in such questions, about a quarter of people in past years would also mention financial mismanagement or misuse of tax money. “That’s now down to 4%,” she said. “We’re very encouraged to see that improvement.”\

She added that in focus groups when someone does mention scandals now, facilitators probe to ask exactly what they remember — and generally find only a vague impression that the agency had problems with few specifics coming to mind.

A telephone poll of 608 people in January by Cicero for UTA also asked residents to rate the agency on a scale from 1 (worst) to 7 (best) in several areas.

The public gave it a rating of 4.99 out of 7 this year for “use of public funds,” up from 4.2 two years ago before restructuring.

It gave it a rating of 4.8 for being “accountable to the public,” up from 3.99 two years ago. And it had a rating of 5.07 for being “responsive to the public” compared to 4.58 two years ago.

“I was personally very encouraged by what we saw this year,” Packer said. The poll also found that 15% of respondents said their impression of UTA has improved, while 4% said it has worsened.

The ratings for UTA’s reputation are now actually higher than the rating for its bus service. Buses received a rating of 4.56 out of 7 (up from 4.29 two years ago).

Other services had higher ratings. FrontRunner commuter rail was at 5.48 (essentially the same as the 5.49 of two years ago); and TRAX light rail was at 5.4 (down from 5.5 two years ago).

The survey also asked nonriders what might persuade them to use UTA. Most said they do not ride because it is inconvenient — with long commute times, no service near their home or benefits of transit not outweighing the ease of driving.

“More frequent service or longer hours are not as likely to get these nonriders to ride. Instead, they prefer wider coverage, particularly on the west side of Salt Lake Valley,” a presentation to the board said.

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