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In our opinion: UTA accountability

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 2 2014 9:08 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 2 2014 9:08 p.m. MDT

UTA offices

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News archives

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Gov. Gary Herbert would like more elected officials to be part of the Utah Transit Authority board, a move he feels would increase the level of accountability in the wake of yet another troubling legislative audit of the agency.

That would be a positive step going forward. However, he and other public officials must demand greater accountability for the past, as well.

Among other things, the audit released last week revealed two highly unusual deals. One involved a $10 million “prepayment” to developer Jeff Vitek for a FrontRunner station in Draper, “even though there were no design specifications or immediate plans for construction.” Later, UTA chose a different contractor to build the project, but the first developer has yet to repay $1.7 million of the prepayment.

While the agency says Vitek put the money in escrow and made improvements to the site, the prepayment raises serious questions, not the least of which is that it violated UTA policy.

The audit criticizes a “general lack of documentation,” no cost-benefit analysis in conjunction with the project, insufficient legal documentation and, perhaps most troubling, “changing explanations we experienced throughout the audit.”

Without proper documentation, the audit said, it’s impossible to know whether UTA’s interests, and subsequently the public’s interests, were adequately protected. The agreement seems connected with acquiring land for the station, but agency officials have said the $10 million was not paid for that purpose. Also, the unusual prepayment caused UTA to lose “much of its ability to control the timing and completion of the project.”

The second project involves the Jordan Valley TRAX station in West Jordan. Auditors said an independent law firm hired to assist in the audit found the procurement process connected to a transit-oriented development at the site appears “to be overly favorable to the developer” and “far out of market.” The developer has yet to pay its share of the costs. Two mostly empty parking garages exist on that site.

The audit said UTA employees had raised concerns about the Jordan Valley deal, noting that the developer chosen for the project, Boulder Ventures, had not provided required financial information.

“The concerns expressed by these employees appeared justified in our review of the procurement file,” the audit said.

Even if, as the governor says, changes have been made at UTA and people responsible for some of the problems have left, taxpayers deserve an accounting. That accounting may demand a criminal investigation.

The Utah Transit Authority has an impressive record of providing a transit system unmatched by any metropolitan area its size in the United States. At least in its early years, the agency built that system with innovation and despite meager resources. It is because of that record that this audit is particularly troubling.

In order for UTA to continue staying abreast of a rapidly growing population, providing real transportation alternatives that alleviate road congestion and pollution, it will need further public resources. Potential tax increases have been mentioned.

For that to happen, public trust is essential. As contentious public comments during a board meeting last week made clear, that trust may never be restored unless a thorough accounting of irregularities involving public funds is executed.

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