New UTA executive director will be far from home, but excited to be in Utah

On the morning of Jan. 3, Jay Fox and his family climbed into their Subaru and departed their home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. They drove 2,200 miles across the country, arriving at their new home in Bountiful, Utah, on the afternoon of Jan. 6. Jay Fox then began his new job as Utah Transit Authority executive director on Jan. 10.

It will be a big change for the east coast transportation professional who has never lived in the west. But he couldn’t be more excited about his new job and the opportunity to live in Utah and help take public transit to a new and exciting level in the Beehive State. 

Fox, an attorney with a law degree from Rutgers University, leaves his position as deputy general counsel for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to take the job in Utah. SEPTA serves the Philadelphia metropolitan area, operating bus, rapid transit, commuter rail, light rail, and electric trolleybus service. With 9,500 employees, the agency is much larger than UTA (although not in geography). It logs nearly 1.5 trillion passenger miles each year across all modes. 

At SEPTA, Fox was responsible for corporate legal matters, including planning, operations, procurement, funding, legislative affairs, real estate, railroad relationships, and regulatory compliance. He also was involved with SEPTA Board preparation, transit-oriented development, ethics compliance, agency-wide policy development, and he oversaw some capital projects.

Fox also brings many years of regional and national transit experience, working for Amtrak and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in a variety of roles. He also spent more than 8 years with the Federal Aviation Administration. He has observed and worked with transit agencies all across the country.

He is very familiar with federal grant and funding programs for transit agencies like UTA, having signed off on some 200 grant agreements annually totaling $1 billion in FTA’s Region 3. He has provided legal reviews of many environmental impact statements and rail investment plans.

At UTA, he will be responsible for day-to-day operations, answering to the full-time, three-member Board of Trustees, including Carlton Christensen, chair, representing Salt Lake County; Beth Holbrook, representing Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties; and Jeff Acerson, representing Utah and Tooele counties. 

It will be a big cultural change for the East Coast native, who has lived most of his life in the greater Philadelphia area. But in an interview, he could barely contain his excitement about the new opportunity with its big challenges, and settling with his wife in a Rocky Mountain state. The couple has a daughter living in California, so the move has the benefit of bringing them closer to her.

Fox said he was surprised to be contacted by a recruiter about the UTA job after Carolyn Gonot resigned the executive director position last May to return to California to run Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. He did a lot of homework about UTA and Utah before deciding to apply.

“What attracted me was UTA’s great reputation within the industry, its multiple transit modes, its wonderfully large service area, and the opportunity lead a transit agency in a beautiful area of the country,” Fox said. “The more I investigated, the more I liked it.”

He had been to Utah previously, but mostly in the middle of the night when be passed through on Amtrak’s Zephyr. “As I came through, I thought what an interesting and beautiful place this would be to live.”  

While the UTA leaders interviewed him, he was also interviewing them. He also talked to other Utah transportation professionals, and a few people who had made the transition from big cities to Utah. One person influential in his decision was Andrew Gruber, who came to Utah from Chicago to run the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

Gruber liked what he saw in Fox. “When I first met Jay, I asked how he would seek to make the transition to a new community and state,” Gruber said. “His answer was that he would ‘start by listening.’ This portends well for Jay and for UTA. Jay brings decades of experience in public transportation capital development, grants, operations, federal programs, and legal affairs. But he also recognizes that each community and state is different, and he intends to learn as much as he can about and from UTA, its partners, and the communities it serves.”

Gruber said Fox’s experience as a transit professional complements the broad experience and community ties of the UTA trustees and employees. “Jay also recognizes the challenge Utah faces as the fastest-growing state in the nation — the need to plan and invest for the future — and that public transportation will play a meaningful role in helping Utah to absorb that growth.”

Fox said he did his homework on UTA, its successes and challenges, its employees, the executive team, and the trustees, who will be his bosses. “I watched board meetings and advisory council meetings on-line. I was impressed with how professional and respectful everyone was, and how deliberative they were in their decisions. It was a lot of factors that led me to accept the job offer.”

He said his family is excited to come to Utah. “We planned this together. My wife had veto authority.”

Fox is well aware of Utah’s reputation for collaboration, with transportation agencies, local governments, regions, state government, and the business community all working well together. He fully embraces such cooperation and is excited to work within such an environment.

“I have been warmly welcomed,” he said. “I already feel very well connected to the trustees, the executive staff, and to other Utah transportation leaders.

Carlton Christensen, chair of UTA’s board of trustees, said he’s excited for Fox to get started. “One of the strongest aspects that impressed me about Jay from the very start, is his ability to listen and bring people together,” Christensen said. “UTA is a great organization of dedicated employees wanting to serve our communities and we felt Jay is capable of helping them grow and be a stronger team. He is committed to Utah; he already purchased a home here, and both he and his wife are all in to make this their new home.”

Fox recognizes that UTA’s biggest challenge is to restore transit ridership to pre-pandemic levels and then take it to new heights. He feels driven to achieve the promises of public transit — keep transportation costs affordable for users, reduce highway congestion, provide mobility to underserved populations, and improve air quality. 

Fox noted that the ridership challenge is being addressed at agencies all across the country in three ways. First, he said, is safety. “For people to come back, we have to provide a safe mode of travel. People have to see they’re safe from the virus, or they won’t come back.

“Second, we must be more flexible with how people want to use transit in the ‘new normal.’ If people are working at home a few times a week, their needs are different than a daily commuter. They might want to come into city for dinner. So service planning and the mix of modes has to be kicked into a much higher level to reflect different transportation needs.”

Third, Fox said all transit agencies need to better meet the needs of younger riders. “They use transit a lot, and many want it as their primary mobility option. Some 50 percent of UTA riders are 34 and under. We have to help them with ‘first mile/last mile’ options. A big demographic spike is young people coming to the Wasatch Front to work for high tech companies. They want to use public transit and their companies strongly support transit.”

The new executive director said UTA is in better shape than many agencies across the country. “The prospect of boosting ridership is really good. The more the population grows, the more demand there is for transit. I believe UTA is poised to do great things.”

Public transit needs to be viewed as “The Answer,” Fox said. It’s the answer to connecting communities, protecting the environment and air quality, serving disadvantaged communities, ensuring inclusion and equity, and maintaining a strong economy with good service for commuters getting to jobs.

“We are The Answer,” he said. “That might make a good marketing campaign.” 

With a big 2021 state appropriation and plentiful federal grant opportunities available, funding is not currently a major impediment for UTA to make progress. However, UTA still doesn’t have the permanent, on-going funding enjoyed by many of its peer agencies in the west.

Fox said he’s confident needed funding will come if UTA performs well and shows that investments pay off. The Utah Legislature’s appropriation of $300 million to begin to double-track Frontrunner is an important opportunity to demonstrate the value of investing in public transit.

“It’s important for us to do well with those funds and produce results,” he said. “We have to demonstrate success and value, show that we are good stewards of public investment.” Great customer service with buses and trains that run on time and are convenient and affordable forms the foundation on which a great transit agency is built, he said. “You can’t frame out a house unless you have a strong foundation.”

There is an “unprecedented opportunity” to bring federal funding to UTA, he said, via the federal infrastructure legislation. With his experience at FTA and SEPTA, he believes he can help attract substantial federal money.

As UTA executive director, Fox will be working in a governance structure unlike any transit agency in the country. Instead of answering to a large, part-time board of directors, Fox will answer to three full-time bosses constituting the UTA Board of Trustees.

He’s not worried about the unique governance. In fact, he welcomes it. “I like the structure a lot,” he said. “It will be great to have a board that is intimately involved in the success of the agency.” The executive director is the day-to-day person, overseeing 2,600 employees and the executive team. “But it will be a close partnership with full-time trustees who are financially, politically and strategically responsible for the agency. It makes for a better agency.”

He said part-time boards must be educated constantly about agency operations, finances and legislative affairs. “Their interests are not as strongly aligned with the agency,” he said. “It’s the opposite with the trustees we have. They are totally engaged, represent the agency to the public, and are fully involved with the political system.” He also likes the fact that the highest level of state government has ties with the agency, as the governor appoints the trustees and they serve at his pleasure.

At end of the day, the governance structure is less important than the quality of the people within the structure. At UTA, Fox believes the people are superb – “they are really great people” – and the structure is also superior. 

Christensen said the trustees felt Fox’s approach to leadership would work well with the UTA board structure, “which is unique and really one of a kind in the nation.  We feel that not only Jay understood it, but in the weeks since we finalized our selection, he has proven that with his efforts to hit the ground running when he starts on January 10th

Fox said he already considers the UTA employees to be “my family. I’m excited to be with them. The number of messages from employees and things they have shared have been heartwarming. I feel like I’m stepping into a huge, welcoming family. This embrace, I think, is very much a Utah thing.”

In his official resume, Fox notes: “In addition to my professional skills, you will find me to be personable and patient, with a relaxed sense of humor.” And he is an “avid hiker,” to boot. He’ll be far from his east coast roots, but seems a good fit for Utah.