Utah Transit Authority Wins Both Praise & Criticism

At a recent meeting of the Utah Transportation Coalition, Salt Lake Chamber President/CEO Lane Beattie noted that the Chamber presented its President’s Award for Excellence to the Utah Transit Authority, on the same day UTA was the subject of a critical legislative audit and media scrutiny. 

While the audit recognized UTA for successful development projects, it criticized the organization for certain aspects of those projects.  The audit also focused on UTA’s compensation structure and financial vulnerability if the economy goes bad.

The Chamber, meanwhile, announced UTA’s selection for the President’s Award at the Chamber’s annual meeting. The Chamber even purchased full-page newspaper ads praising UTA for completing 70 miles of rail projects two years early and $300 million under budget, and for “operating one of the most cost-efficient transit system in the country . . . We have a world-class transit system that is bringing new business, economic development and jobs to Utah.” UTA was also recently named the best large transit agency in North America by the American Public Transportation Association.

 So what is the real UTA?

It’s probably a little of both. UTA executives acknowledge that mistakes were made in early development projects. In its attempts to facilitate transit-oriented development, “our early efforts were not as regimented as they could have been,” said UTA President/CEO Mike Allegra. A new TOD department with new leadership is now being created.

The UTA Board of Trustees has also made changes in compensation policies, although criticism of UTA salaries will likely continue.

UTA Board Chair Greg Hughes pointed out that UTA has increased service miles nearly 25% in recent years, and acknowledged that if the economy declines, some service reductions may have to be made, as would occur in any government agency if revenue doesn’t meet expectations. But he is confident UTA is solid financially and will be able to service its debt and continue to provide good service.

The UTA projects scrutinized in the audit were all built, and the audit did not find any wrongdoing. The Board says its policies were followed. Hughes views the audit as a positive experience that has helped the agency improve as audit recommendations have been implemented. Even Sen. John Valentine, the respected state senator who requested the audit, expressed his trust in UTA’s current management team, and noted that audit recommendations have been implemented. 

UTA is a large, multi-billion dollar organization used by thousands of Utahns every day. That makes it a big, visible target because everyone has an opinion. UTA is also probably the most-scrutinized agency in the state. It has undergone several legislative audits and is regularly audited by the Federal Transit Administration in its use of federal dollars. It is also carefully monitored by the news media. City and county leaders and regional planning agencies, along with the Legislature, provide careful oversight.

It should be noted that UTA is an agency in transition. For years it has focused on building large rail projects, which now constitute the backbone of the transit system. It spent $2.5 billion and by all accounts managed the projects very well, even amidst a major downturn in the economy. While many transit agencies across the country were shutting down projects, scaling them back, or asking taxpayers for more money, UTA forged ahead with its big projects and finished them two years early, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

While more capital projects will surely be built, UTA’s focus now is operational excellence and improved customer service rather than constructing huge rail lines. It’s no longer a big construction company. It’s now turning its attention to improved bus and train service with more frequency and convenience. If it can bring the same intensity to great customer service as it did to building big projects, it will make a lot of riders happy.

UTA has a strong board of trustees whose members are hands-on and highly engaged in policy development and oversight. The board members are appointed by elected officials in the transit district, including the governor, House speaker and Senate president. In watching them operate, my observation is that they are strong individuals who hold agency leaders accountable. 

To produce revenue and keep fares low, the board has encouraged UTA to be more entrepreneurial than is usual with government agencies. TOD partnerships around transit stations is part of that entrepreneurship, but there is a learning curve.

                To be sure, the rail backbone will serve Utahns for many decades to come. As Utah’s population doubles in size, and air quality concerns continue to grow, transit demand will balloon. We simply won’t be able to double highway capacity But it will be relatively easy to increase transit capacity by dropping more trains on the same tracks, without having to build massive new projects.

Our children and grandchildren will be grateful the current generation of Utahns had the foresight to build a solid transit backbone. Years ago, visionary transit leaders purchased much of the corridor right-of-way for TRAX and FrontRunner for a mere $1 million a mile. Transit agencies in some other states are purchasing corridor for $30 million a mile.

There have been, and will be, hiccups along the way, but the Wasatch Front has an excellent transit system that will only get better.