The Utah Transit Authority will be under the scrutiny of a federal watchdog for the next three years in exchange for a promise by authorities not to prosecute the agency for criminal wrongdoing. The UTA is trying to put a positive spin on the agreement, saying it is “excited” to have a third party look over operations to validate the agency’s compliance with rules and regulations.
UTA managers can be excused for looking for a bright side to the situation. That’s because after years of writhing in controversy and suspicion, there actually might be a light at the end of UTA's tunnel. The transit agency is now in a position to move forward and earnestly begin the strenuous task of rebuilding its image and regaining credibility. That process might entail an overhaul of the UTA’s oversight and governance structures, something the Legislature has created a task force to look into. And there may be more revelations of misbehavior associated with UTA officials as a federal investigation goes on and as a former board member faces trial on criminal charges having to do with his role in a UTA transit development.
But the settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s office at least opens the door to an eventual emergence from a dusky world of doubt and mistrust. The agency has been hobbled by a public relations problem that contributed to the failure of a tax initiative that would have raised money for needed transportation development in Salt Lake and Utah counties. With rapid population growth underway along the Wasatch Front, transportation planning is a vital exercise and a fit and well-functioning transit agency is vital to that task.
UTA managers seem well aware that the mission to come out on the other side of nearly a decade of controversy will not be easy. Rebuilding trust takes time, and there will be lingering memories of disclosures about large executive pay packages and travel perks and shady deals surrounding transit-oriented real estate development. The UTA would like to proclaim the investigative efforts have left it with a clean bill of health. But right now, the best it can say is that it is not facing fines or sanctions for criminal misconduct.
The coming three years in which federal overseers will be peering into UTA operations will provide an opportunity for the agency to demonstrably operate along a straight and narrow path. Barring any hiccups during that process, the public may be able to come to see the agency’s misdeeds in the past tense. This should be the goal of the UTA and those in the Legislature concerned with the agency’s integrity. The road to the restoration of trust may be a long bus ride, but it’s deeply in the public interest that we arrive at that destination as quickly as possible.