Hughes says how the Utah Transit Authority is governed is the issue that could ‘hijack’ the 2018 session

The governance of the Utah Transit Authority could be the “sleeper” issue of the 2018 Legislature, which starts next Monday, says House Speaker Greg Hughes.

“It could highjack the session,” much like Medicaid expansion did several Legislatures ago, said Hughes, R-Draper.

The Legislature appointed a special transportation study committee last year, but the committee is split on how it sees UTA being reformed.

In a interview, Hughes said he tentatively favors the Legislature restructuring the leadership of the large transit authority – which today is run by a board appointed by a variety of government entities.

Hughes, who served on the UTA board for years, several as chairman, favors a three-person, full-time commission, appointed by the governor (with input from other governing bodies) and confirmation by the state Senate.

Hughes, who last week announced he’s retiring from the House the end of this year, is not interested in being such a commissioner. “I’ve done my time there” at UTA.

There could be a way, said the speaker, where the currently unpopular UTA could be restructured without the state having to take over the agency’s large $2 billion debt – which could harm the state’s high AAA bond rating.

In a way, said Hughes, the UTA is a victim of its own success.

Various studies show that Utah roads – especially along the Wasatch Front where most Utahns live — are not seeing the same traffic loads as the growth in population would reflect.

Thus, says Hughes, many Utahns are taking transit or seeking other options than driving alone in their cars.

This is a good thing.

But UTA still has a lot of challenges.

For example, several years ago the Legislature allowed citizens in different counties being served by UTA buses, light rail TRAX, and heavy rail Frontrunner, to vote on whether to raise their own sales taxes – the money going to local roads and UTA.

The referendum passed in Weber and Davis counties but failed in the larger Salt Lake and Utah counties.

That failure is placed at the feet of UTA leadership over time, as often reported in Salt Lake Tribune articles.

Thus, said Hughes, local city and county officials are asking the Legislature to decouple local road support (tax hikes) in any future citizen vote – a UTA sales tax hike would stand alone.

Local mayors and councils believe their citizens will vote to increase their sales taxes slightly if UTA is not part of the ballot measure.

Hughes says he doesn’t want to do that – he prefers UTA be reorganized and regain the public’s trust along the Front.

The issue of local roads and local transit should remain together – UTA can’t succeed without local partnerships, says the speaker.

Hughes said when he was chairman he thought maybe UTA was being hit in the media and elsewhere because of him – a sitting high-profile legislator.

But after he got off the board, UTA got even worse press.

“We need to depoliticize it.” And he likes the fulltime commissioner model – which has been used in county commissions across the state for years.

“There are different ways to do this without making (UTA) a state entity,” and thus subject to the state taking over UTA’s large – which was run up to build Frontrunner and extend TRAX lines.

Local government should have some say in sending names to the governor, but he would appoint, and the Senate confirm.

“If we had something like that, I believe we would have a stronger model” of UTA governance, said Hughes.