Lobbyists act as UTA's eyes and ears, relaying information from mayors or legislators gathered in meetings or other settings. "That is a huge expenditure of manpower, but it's critical," Jones said.
"There would be many that would say we don't spend near enough resources in communicating with cities and counties and the federal government," he said. "We try to balance that. Hopefully, we've struck a good balance."
UTA has considered hiring a full-time government relations specialist. But Jones said it's more cost-effective right now to buy a portion of time with those who have expertise with city or state governments.
"It's hard to find one or two or five people that have all of those talents and to spend less money than we spend, frankly," he said.
The UTA juggernaut deploys a roster of well-connected, politically savvy local lobbyists who run in the same circles as UTA board members, state legislators and local government leaders.
They include former Republican House Speaker Greg Curtis and former Senate President Miles "Cap" Ferry, according to documents on file in the lieutenant governor's office. Curtis served in the Legislature with current UTA board chairman and Republican House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, of Draper.
Others include Capitol Hill lobbyists Dave Stewart, Alan Dayton and Mike Zuhl, who works for longtime UTA lobbyist R&R Partners, which also has several Wasatch Front cities as clients. Dayton is a former deputy mayor and acting mayor of Salt Lake County.
Most of UTA's lobbyists declined to be interviewed, saying the agency asked them to direct questions to UTA.
But in an interview last year Zuhl acknowledged their influence has made a difference with lawmakers.
"I do believe we've had an impact in terms of how local and state officials have viewed UTA. That's part of what we do as advocates," said Zuhl who has 30 years of experience in state and local government. He helped push through sales tax increases for UTA in 2000 and 2006.
The transit authority hires lobbyists to address prospective legislation and win financial and political support for major rail expansion, driving job growth and reducing congestion, said Gerry Carpenter, UTA spokesman.
"The efforts being made are extensive and these individuals are appropriately compensated for the accomplishments they've helped us achieve," he said.
With the ability of lobbyists to give and bundle campaign contributions and influence legislation, public funding of lobbyists concentrates power in a few hands, said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
"You simply have a monopoly of very narrow interests which can control public debate and public policy," he said.
Those relationships don't pass the smell test for Roger Kehr, a Cottonwood Heights resident and sharp critic of UTA.
"Venn diagrams are basically circles of interest," he said, ticking off the names of lobbyists, politicians and others connected to the transit agency. "Each of them has a circle of interest, and if you look where all those circles of interest intersect, they intersect at one spot. That spot is UTA."
Contributing: John Daley
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