I am pleased with Gov. Gary Herbert’s two recent appointments to the Utah Transit Authority Commission. This three-member commission is the new governance structure for UTA. In accordance with carefully crafted recent legislation, the governor was wise in selecting Carlton Christensen and Beth Holbrook. A representative from Utah County has yet to be named.
Beth and Carlton are capable leaders with long experience in government and business management, with no connection to previous UTA administrations. The public has been expecting a fresh start along with new leadership for UTA, and we will get it with these two choices.
Much has been done at UTA to address excesses from the past. However, there is much more work for these new leaders to address. Many people from the transportation community feel that UTA’s day-to-day operations are generally well-run, which is reflected in the national awards the agency has received. The challenge will be to expand service while at the same time reducing expenses.
I say “reduce” because UTA is scheduled to deficit spend over the next two years just to maintain current operations. All this while carrying $2.1 billion in debt, spending 27.2 percent of the annual budget on debt payments and having bond payoffs in 2042. A tall order indeed! To meet these challenges, I suggest that UTA use the increased funding from the recently enacted 0.125 percent increased transit sales tax to avoid deficit spending.
There is a phrase that goes, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Going further into debt is simply a bad idea. When our personal household budgets are in the red, we cut expenses. This may be painful in our personal budgets, just as it will be for UTA in its quest to balance revenue with the transit needs of an ever-expanding community. Nevertheless, careful budget prioritization is needed.
A case in point has been bloated executive salaries. Some of these issues have already been dealt with, but there is still more to do. For example, the legislation requires that the Utah Attorney General’s Office provide legal services to UTA. It now appears that salaries for deputy attorneys general are about a third lower than those for UTA attorneys. As expected, there is some pushback from UTA on giving up its own attorneys. However, if money can be saved in this case and others, so be it. The taxpayers simply cannot afford and will not tolerate the excessive practices of the past. In addition, all UTA commission meetings must be open and transparent and in full compliance with the Utah Open Meetings Act.
Moving forward, UTA will continue to be expected to provide efficient transit service in our growing community. The new UTA management must look at new methods of moving people to remain relevant. It is not financially viable to fund additional bus routes with large buses that have few riders. To meet service levels, UTA leadership should explore partnering with Uber and Lyft as a more cost-effective means of moving people rather than using more buses. Also, UTA should explore subcontracting with van companies to provide service on routes with less volume. This is a similar business model to how major airlines subcontract with smaller regional airlines to move people at a lower cost on routes with less volume.
Both of these new transit methods of moving people from point A to point B are being studied and implemented in numerous municipalities in the United States and Canada. UTA should study and improve upon what others are doing in order to serve the needs of our community.
Again, I applaud the governor for his well-considered appointments and pledge to do my part as a Salt Lake County councilman to make our transit program a success.
Richard Snelgrove is an at-large member of the Salt Lake County Council.