UTA tops the list of big-money lobbying on Capitol Hill

Published: Monday, Dec. 10 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

TRAX riders get on and off the train at 250 S. Main in Salt Lake City Friday, Sept. 28, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When the Utah Legislature convenes next month, one publicly funded agency will have as many as eight lobbyists bending lawmakers' ears on Capitol Hill.

The Utah Transit Authority spends more on in-state lobbying than any local government entity. From 2008 through September 2012, UTA contracts with state lobbyists totaled nearly $1.3 million, according to figures provided by the agency. On average, it pays out about $260,000 a year.

A Deseret News and KSL-TV analysis of public agency and local city spending on state lobbyists shows UTA at or near the top of the list not only locally but nationally as well.

In comparison to transit agencies in a dozen large cities across the country, only Houston outspends UTA on in-state lobbying. Some major cities including Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis don't contract with state lobbyists at all.

UTA also ranks among the biggest spenders on transportation-related lobbying in Washington, information detailed previously as part of the Deseret News/KSL report. In total, UTA has paid $3.5 million to lobbyists at the federal and state level the past five years.

Transit authority officials defend the big spending, 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.

UTA general manager Mike Allegra called it a "choreographed" effort that requires establishing many relationships.

"I think we've had some of the best success in the country in terms of soliciting dollars as well as providing policy direction both at the federal and a little bit more at the state level now," he said while riding FrontRunner on a test run to Provo. "With the transition from federal policies to state policies, we have put a little more emphasis on state."

Only Sandy comes close to UTA in terms of number of lobbyists and dollars spent. The city currently contracts with six local firms or individuals and has paid them $1.2 million the past five years. It spent another $900,000 to lobby in the nation's capital.

Allegra said UTA is larger than any city in Utah in terms of its annual budget and "scope of what we provide."

UTA is in the midst of its $2.3 billion expansion project, adding 70 miles of rail service, including the FrontRunner South commuter train to Provo that opened Monday. TRAX extensions to Salt Lake City International Airport and to Draper are scheduled to open next year. Local dollars fund about 80 percent of that project, while the remainder is federal money.

One state Senate leader, however, questions the need for publicly funded entities to send contract lobbyists to the Legislature at all, and has proposed laws over the years to ban it, but without success.

"I don’t think we should allow lobbying from agencies that have public money," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. "I just don't think it should be allowed, especially for those people who are up here and we deal with them on a regular basis. They can knock on my door and walk in any time, so why do you need a lobbyist?"

What UTA gets from lobbying on the state and local levels is less visible than on the federal level.

Bruce Jones, UTA general counsel, said it's about listening to and educating local and state elected officials in the 80 cities and six counties in the transit district, not  proposing or selling legislation. Transit issues, he said, are complex because they involve planning for roads, utilities and land use.

"I would say 80 percent of our agenda is to respond to inquiries, not to lobby for specific causes," he said.

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