Utah Transit Authority has done a lot of things right. Launched in 1970 with the hope of avoiding Los Angeles’ smog and gridlock, it brought a credible car alternative to blossoming suburbs and urban corridors.
Decades later, UTA built a light rail system that gained ridership beyond expectations and elevated the agency to a catalyst and shaper of development, as evidenced by the apartment boom along the university rail route.
But for all of its successes, UTA ultimately was vanquished by its excesses, including mind-boggling executive salaries and bonuses, development scandals and questionable property deals, and a massive $2 billion debt that costs UTA 30 cents of every dollar it gets.
Now the Legislature is poised to dismantle its oversight structure and rename it “Transit District Utah.” Lawmakers are still haggling over funding formulas, but the overhaul of UTA appears all but certain.
It’s not as if the end is a big surprise, thanks to years of dogged reporting by Tribune reporter Lee Davidson. So much of what UTA squandered in the way of public support can be traced to facts uncovered by Davidson and clumsily minimized or denied by UTA. Fake news it wasn’t, and here we sit.
UTA’s Waterloo came in a 2015 vote to raise taxes for both roads and transit. Roads were included because leaders knew UTA couldn’t win a vote by itself. Even then, voters in Utah’s two biggest counties wouldn’t go along.
After that, UTA leadership started trying to describe the agency as more of a lifestyle-shaping entity, with much of its focus on developing property it owns along transit routes. They even went so far as to say they had been too focused on ridership and revenue.
They said that because ridership and revenue were flat in a blossoming population base. Saddled with debt, UTA has no way to add service and no way to raise more money. The bus is stuck.
The core problem is a diffused oversight structure that over the years has led to UTA running its board instead of the other way around. With members appointed by a dozen or so elected officials, it was accountable to no single person. It was so insular that not once in its 48-year history did it hire an executive director from the outside.
The new setup goes right after that. Under SB136, it will be led by three commissioners, all appointed by the governor on recommendations from other elected officials. It’s worth repeating: The governor will be ultimately, and directly, responsible for mass transit in Utah going forward. Voters will know whom to credit and whom to blame.
It appears the final bill will include some new money for “TDU,” or at least it could. The bill may allow cities to fund their own, smaller bus systems as alternatives.
And transit may have to compete more directly with roads for money under the new structure, which puts it under an umbrella with the Utah Department of Transportation. If roads win that competition, we’ll lose ground on air quality and gridlock at a time when Utahns have never been closer to embracing that 1970s transit ideal.
Thanks for the good times, UTA. Your dreams shouldn’t die with you.