SB136 ushers in exciting new era for Utah transportation & UTA

The 2018 legislative session is in full swing and legislators have introduced an unprecedented number of new bills to date. There is a bill currently making its way through the legislative process that could fundamentally change how the state makes transportation investments in the future.

SB136 Transportation Governance Amendments sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper and Rep. Mike Schultz incorporates many of the recommendations made by the legislatively-created Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force and would significantly change how the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) is governed.

SB136 would create a full-time three-member commission tasked with overseeing the agency and reduce the current 16-member Board of Trustees to a 9-member advisory board.

I recently sat down with Jerry Benson, UTA’s President and CEO, to get his perspective on the bill.

It’s clear almost immediately that Benson sees SB136 as a watershed moment for transportation and a generational opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of Utahns for decades to come. “This is ground-breaking legislation,” he states. “It is as significant as the Utah Public Transit District Act of 1969.”

The Public Transit District Act of 1969 allowed communities to address transportation needs by forming local transit districts within individual municipalities.

“The legislature has recognized that what started as a municipal service has now turned into a regional service and is an integral part of our transportation system,” explains Jerry. “We need a structure now that will work for the next 50 years. As usual, Utah is approaching that smartly in its own way.”

What is the ‘Utah way’ when it comes to transit? Recent history provides some context.

In 2006, the Legislature passed a bill with a veto-proof majority authorizing counties within the UTA service district to ask voters to approve a ¼ cent sales tax increase for transportation projects. The Salt Lake Chamber championed the cause, with many groups, including the Utah Taxpayers Association, supporting it.

The initiative made it on the ballot as Prop 3 in Salt Lake County and as an Opinion Question in Utah County and was approved by voters. These successful ballot initiatives helped fund the Frontlines 2015 program that included four TRAX lines and FrontRunner. These transit projects originally had been planned to be built by 2030 but at the voters’ request, UTA was able to build them decades in advance.

Fast-forward 12 years and the region is now at a similar crossroads. Utah’s economy is booming and our population is projected to double by 2065. The difference, however, between 2006 and 2018 is that there are no easy solutions to ease congestion.

In 2015, voters in Utah’s two most populous counties voted down Prop 1 that would have increased funding for transit service. Additionally, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) officials have said that continuing to build roads at the same pace as the past is unrealistic.  Consequently, Utah’s policymakers must consider investing in multimodal options like transit, biking, and walking, and leveraging technological advancements that allow the transportation system to operate more efficiently.

For example, nowhere is congestion more evident than the I-15/FrontRunner corridor between northern Utah County and southern Davis County. Even though this corridor is the most heavily traveled in the state, there are no ‘quick fixes’ to alleviate congestion. That is where the ‘Utah way’ Benson mentions comes into play.

Utah’s transportation agencies came together to study what combination of transportation investments would be needed between now and 2050 to improve mobility in the corridor. They found, among other things, that transit ridership would need to double.

“We can manage the travel needs of the corridor without increasing the footprint of the freeway but it takes a different mix of services,” says Benson. “We need to stop thinking in terms of distinct road or transit projects and start thinking about an integrated transportation system with new solutions like dynamic pricing, connected vehicles, and integrated land use decisions that reduce the need for travel.”

This different mix of services would require policy changes that allow funding to flow to the best combination of mobility solutions — something, Benson says, SB 136 does.

“[SB 136] breaks down silos of funding and institutionalizes partnerships that already exist between UDOT, the transit agencies, and the metropolitan planning organizations so decisions are not dependent on personalities.”

How do the personalities of the Utah’s transportation leaders make a difference? I asked Benson about his own background to get some insights.

Benson is a self-described Utah boy who grew up in east Millcreek and whose first interactions with the transit system were riding Route 14 to get to college. He studied Organizational Communication at the University of Utah (U of U) and spent his early career working for a Wyoming coal mine as a recruiter. During that time, Benson learned a lot about people and organizations. “I got really interested in how organizations worked and that’s been my interest and my passion ever since.”

Benson came back to Utah in 1984 and has spent the past 34 years working for UTA. “There’s nothing like working in an agency that is all about improving the quality of life for our community and making a difference in someone’s day.” During that time, Benson also taught hundreds of students in the U of U’s Executive MPA program who have gone on to be public policy leaders in Utah.

In 2016 after an exhaustive nationwide search failed to identify a CEO, the UTA Board asked Benson, who had been acting as Interim CEO, to consider applying for the top spot. Benson was selected and tasked with reforming an agency that was under federal investigation and reeling from the findings of a legislative audit.

Benson’s mandate was to reform the agency by restricting travel, limiting executive compensation, and restructuring internal departments to make UTA more transparent and publicly accountable.

The agency has since adopted what it calls its “True Norths”- Service, People, Environment, Community, and Stewardship and recently rolled out customer service standards. These standards measure how the agency is performing on 15 different metrics as means of ensuring accountability for the use of taxpayer resources.

In addition, Benson recently created an Innovative Mobility Solutions department within UTA to serve as a testing ground for new ideas. “We’ve got to be willing to find the best solutions,” Benson says emphatically.

This small new department cobbled together with existing agency resources will scan the industry worldwide and provide opportunities to test new technologies, including how the transit system will coordinate with connected, shared, autonomous, electric vehicles and how UTA can partner with private sector companies such as Uber and Lyft to take advantage of the sharing economy.

The Innovative Mobility Solutions department will also be tasked with developing one platform like a smartphone app for transportation system users so traveling somewhere and paying for the trip could all be done in one place- even if the trip includes a bus ride, shared vehicle, and/or a train.

While these ideas sound great in concept, operationalizing them will prove challenging. “We still have a lot of ground to cover,” says Benson.

While there may be a lot of ground to cover, SB 136 may very well lay the needed groundwork.

Muriel Xochimitl is President of X-Factor Strategic Communications and the former Director of Government Affairs and Communications for the Wasatch Front Regional Council. She has also worked as a Communications Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.