Should state money for UTA require governance change?


Key Utah leaders are suggesting what not long ago was unthinkable – use state money for public transit.

That is a significant, and welcome, change of attitude. To this point, public transit has been mostly funded by local sales taxes, fare revenue and federal grants. The willingness of legislative leaders and the governor to use state money for public transit reflects clear evidence that Utah will not be able to maintain good mobility in the face of rapid population growth without expansion of public transit services.

Utah’s transportation planners, including the “highway guys,” recognize that just building more and wider freeways and roads won’t handle Utah’s transportation needs as the population doubles by 2060. Double-decker freeways aren’t in Utah’s future. Corridor planning must be multi-modal. Public transit and active transportation, along with wise land use decisions and smart development, must play large roles in maintaining enviable life quality and good mobility, so people and products can get to their destinations in a timely fashion.

Public transit must be expanded in key areas, and more frequent and more convenient service is needed along many existing routes. Fares must stay in the affordable range to encourage ridership.

Lawmakers have made clear that state money for transit will come with strings attached — as is appropriate. Transit projects would have to compete with highway projects for state money, and the most important projects, highway or transit, would be funded. Transit projects funded with state money would be overseen by the Utah Department of Transportation, in collaboration with Utah Transit Authority.

Further, state leaders are demanding that UTA’s governance be dramatically changed before state money could be used for transit. That causes consternation among some city and county leaders who have traditionally controlled UTA through appointments to its board of trustees. They agree that state oversight of state money used for transit is entirely appropriate. But they balk at what they see as a near-takeover of UTA by the state.

UTA certainly needs state money. The agency does not have money available now, or coming in the foreseeable future, to build many of the projects recommended in Utah’s unified transportation plan. UTA has committed to using existing resources to operate and maintain the 140 miles of rail that has been constructed over the past 20 years.  That’s the right thing to do. And, even though the agency has moved beyond past controversies, it’s not likely that local voters will boost sales taxes in the near future to pay for additional transit services.

Encouraged by the business community, UTA aggressively built many miles of TRAX and FrontRunner rail a decade ahead of what was originally planned. In doing so, UTA acquired significant debt. The system is popular and provides great public service and congestion mitigation, but debt payments, operations, and maintenance use up most of UTA’s revenue.

It’s important to remember that UTA operates with less public funding than transit agencies in its peer metropolitan areas in the west. Funding sources vary, but Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland and the big California cities all receive the equivalent of a penny or more per dollar in sales taxes, while UTA operates with significantly less.   

That allows those transit agencies to offer longer hours and more frequency in their bus and rail services. If UTA enjoyed equivalent funding to those cities, it could improve services and expand the system without state funding.

The Legislature’s Transportation Funding and Governance Task Force is suggesting, with the apparent support of Gov. Gary Herbert and House Speaker Greg Hughes, that UTA’s existing 16-member board of trustees be replaced with three full-time commissioners, appointed by the governor, who would run the day-to-day operations of the agency. An unpaid advisory board made up of appointees of local governments would serve as liaison to cities and counties in the transit district. Local leaders would no longer directly oversee the transit agency through serving on the board or via their appointments.

Some local leaders say that if local tax dollars continue to be used to fund UTA, they should continue to have a large say in how it is spent, rather than have a governor-appointed three-member commission control those funds.

Some also question whether a three-member commission is the best governance model. Transportation leaders are not aware of any other transit agency in the country that is run by a three-member commission. They note that UDOT is governed by a seven-member policy-making commission that oversees an executive director who runs the day-to-day operations. That model seems to work well for a transportation agency. 

Legislators point out that some state agencies like the Tax Commission and Public Service Commission are successfully managed by three-member commissions. And many county governments have three-member commissions. But quite a few counties are switching to a county executive/council form of government. And some of the state commissions have a quasi-judicial role, much different than running a transportation agency. Some state commissions also have executive directors that run day-to-day operations.

The Legislature’s Transportation Funding and Governance Task Force did an excellent job looking at Utah’s overall transportation needs, both short-term and long-term. Their recommendations regarding funding and land use planning make great sense and put Utah’s transportation system on a positive course forward.

The governance recommendations are going to require further discussion with local leaders. It would be entirely possible for the state to control state spending on public transit while monitoring UTA performance under recent policy changes and new board leadership. 

Excellent transportation systems are critical to Utah’s future. Not much is more important to economic strength and good-paying jobs for Utah workers, not to mention quality of life, than the ability to move people and products without undue congestion and delay.

Some 60,000 additional people are added to Utah’s population base each year, mostly along the Wasatch Front. That’s like plopping down a city the size of Taylorsville into our already-crowded metropolitan area — and those additional 60,000 people mean more vehicles on our roads and highways.

It will be extremely difficult to accommodate 600,000 more people in just 10 years with existing infrastructure. Even worse, much of the growth will occur in already-congested locations like northern Utah County and the Point of the Mountain area — expected to explode in business and residential growth.

It will take extraordinary effort to maintain reasonable mobility in those areas, and others. A lot is riding (pun intended) on transportation decisions made in the upcoming legislative session.