UTA built trains on the backs of big-money lobbyists, but can the system be sustained?

Published: Thursday, June 7 2012 11:46 p.m. MDT

UTA reports that every dollar spent on lobbying has brought more than $500 to Utah.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — With a cadre of highly paid, high-powered lobbyists at its disposal, the Utah Transit Authority has raked in more than a billion dollars to build its expanding transportation network.

Publicly, much of the credit for the nationally recognized multimodal system goes to the vision of UTA executives. Behind the scenes, though, the agency has shelled out big bucks to sell mass transit in Utah to federal agencies and once-skeptical state lawmakers.

And those lobbyists have done such a good job that the agency might have out-kicked its coverage. Questions persist about whether UTA has the money to maintain the miles of new track it is putting down on the Wasatch Front.

UTA spending on government lobbying dwarfs that of transit agencies around the country, some of which don't hire outside lobbyists at all. The agency consistently ranks among the biggest spenders on transportation-related lobbying in Washington, according to numbers compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Since 2006, UTA has spent more than $3.5 million on federal and state lobbying, according to figures provided by the agency. The spending peaked at $833,874 in 2010. It spent $658,286 in 2011 and expects to spend about the same this year, said UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter.

The lineup of UTA lobbyists amounts to a who's who of top Capitol Hill persuaders, including former high-ranking legislators and longtime politicos along with well-connected firms in the nation's capital.

UTA is unapologetic about hiring "government relations consultants," saying every dollar spent has brought more than $500 to the agency. In the past five years it has hauled in more than $1 billion in federal funds for operating costs and system expansion, more dollars per capita than any metropolitan transit agency in the country.

Two of those Washington lobbyists, James C. Barker, one-time chief of staff for former Sen. Bob Bennett, and Anja Graves of CHG & Associates, deflected requests for interviews to the transit agency.

"We believe that money we've spent on government relations work has been very much worth it," Carpenter said. "All you have to do is take a look at what we've managed to build here and continue to build."

Carpenter said the lobbyists are instrumental in helping UTA secure federal funds, tracking legislation and meeting with members of the Utah's congressional delegation.

"Our executive staff can't be back in Washington all the time," he said. "They have a transit system to run."

The transit authority is in the midst of its $2.3 billion FrontLines 2015 project, adding 70 miles of rail service, including the FrontRunner South commuter rail line to Provo. Local dollars fund about 80 percent of that project, while the remainder is federal money.

In addition, UTA is working on light rail extensions to Salt Lake City International Airport and to Draper. This past week, it announced plans to build an $80 million bus maintenance facility downtown and fold its old garage into a transit-oriented development near The Gateway.

But once those projects are complete next year, the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General wonders whether UTA has the money to maintain them.

"It remains uncertain whether UTA will have the revenue to satisfactorily operate the costly systems that it is building. UTA's revenue projections are optimistic, while expense projections may be understated," according to a legislative audit released in January.

Deputy auditor general Rick Coleman told state lawmakers given UTA's financial situation, "there's not much margin for error left."

That could leave the agency and local cities with two painful options once the lines are completed: Cut service or ask area residents for more money to operate the trains and buses.

A single-ride TRAX fare went up to $2.35 in April and will increase to $2.50 next April.

But Carpenter said UTA doesn't anticipate other rate increases or asking cities to raise taxes and has a plan in place to operate under its existing budget. The agency also will study going to distance-based fares over a couple of years.

"Things are tight," he said. "But we've successfully done it to date with minimal cuts to service. We're committed to doing the same going forward."

Whatever happens, state lawmakers don't want taxpayers left footing the bill.

"We really need to do a deep analysis and look what the five- and 10-year plan really is to promote the ridership to ensure that we have a return on investment," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-West Jordan.

"Right now, though, I still fear that an if-we-build-it-they-will-come attitude exists. We have to be very careful about that because the Utah taxpayer has to deal with it if there's a problem."

A legislative committee took UTA to task earlier this year for failing to implement recommendations from a 2008 audit and asked the agency for a five- or 10-year plan but have yet to receive it.

"We want to see a report," said Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley. "They need to pay attention. They need to know the Legislature is watching."

Fisher worries UTA won't be able to maintain the system and fears more fare increases will compel commuters to give up on mass transit.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, said he's heard nothing since the January legislative committee meeting to assure him the transit agency has the funds to maintain the system.

"I would remain skeptical," he said.

Madsen said he's troubled that rider fares cover as little as 5 percent and only as much as 18 percent of UTA's operating costs.

"That's striking to me," he said. "I don't like the idea of people who don't use the system having to subsidize it."

Carpenter said the agency is working to comply with the audits and provide lawmakers with the information they're seeking.

Meantime, UTA will continue to pay lobbyists in Washington to pursue federal funds, though it appears big money won't be coming Utah's way in the future.

"The big grants are pretty much done and here," Carpenter said, adding the available pots of money are smaller. "They money is out there still, but it will be harder to get."

Contributing: John Daley

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