Without his ability to deal with Washington, to look at funding options and opportunities and to represent public transportation to the community, we would not have the transportation options we have today. —Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini
SALT LAKE CITY — The driving force behind Utah's nationally recognized transit system quietly retired this year, capping a career that saw its share of successes and controversy.
Those who watched John Inglish in action call him a visionary, big thinker and leader. They also describe him as tenacious, enthusiastic and thick-skinned in his ambitious plans to transform what was nothing more than a local bus company 35 years ago.
"Wayne Gretzky said good hockey players skate to the puck. Great hockey players skate to where the puck is going to be," said Utah Transit Authority board chairman Greg Hughes. "That's been a theme of John Inglish's service at UTA."
Inglish started at the transit agency in 1977 when its fleet consisted of 250 buses in Salt Lake County. The UTA board appointed him general manager in 1997, and he spent the last two years as chief executive officer, a role that focused his time on national transit initiatives and policy and seeking new federal funding sources for UTA.
Other than a small party with friends and elected officials at the Alta Club, Inglish left UTA without fanfare in April. He declined an interview request Tuesday through UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter.
As he retired, the agency boasted more than 600 buses running in six counties, 38 miles of light rail and 44 miles of commuter rail. Both rail systems are currently in the midst of major expansions and a streetcar line is under construction as well.
"Without his ability to deal with Washington, to look at funding options and opportunities and to represent public transportation to the community, we would not have the transportation options we have today," said Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini.
Inglish received handsome pay for his work, earning more than $350,000 in salary and benefits annually the past five years.
Those figures generated controversy two years ago when it was revealed he made more than transit executives in a number of major cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Phoenix. Even Gov. Gary Herbert questioned Inglish's pay and suggested the state might have to look at how UTA is organized.
How much Inglish will take home in retirement is unclear. UTA denied a Deseret News request under the Government Records Access and Management for details of his retirement package. It pointed to the UTA website section describing the agency's employee pension plan.
Under that plan, he would be due 2 percent of his average salary the past five years multiplied by his 35 years of service. That comes out to about $205,000 per year.
Carpenter would not confirm that number. But he said Inglish didn't receive anything beyond what the pension plan outlines.
Supporters say Inglish was worth the money taxpayer-funded UTA paid him.
During his tenure, Inglish managed the funding and construction of more than $4 billion in rail infrastructure with about 80 percent of the funds coming from federal sources. He helped push through a series of public referendums dedicating sales tax to public transit. He oversaw the nation's largest railroad corridor land acquisition — 175 miles of Union Pacific Railroad lines cutting through the Wasatch Front.
Hughes, a Republican state legislator from Draper, said Inglish constantly talked about big ideas and big projects, including wanting a transportation system for bicycles.
Inglish, he said, always asked, "What's possible? What can we do? What hasn't been done?"
Keith Bartholomew, a UTA board member and University of Utah professor of urban planning, said there wouldn't be a rail system in Salt Lake City without Inglish's pie-in-the-sky vision.
"These ideas need to have to come from somewhere and they need to have a leader. John was that guy," he said.
Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan counted himself among Inglish's critics early on. Dolan, like many other elected officials, wanted transportation dollars spent on roads rather than light rail.
"In retrospect, I along with many others believe we were wrong," he said.
"One thing I admire about John is he's got vision. He's moved this forward. He's got the leaderships skills to have made it happen. And he's got the thick skin to have gone through all the up and downs and criticisms that he's had to take over the years."
Bartholomew said Inglish articulated his ideas in a way that people would buy into them.
Not all of his big ideas worked, he said. But he "never got discouraged. He took bad news in stride."
If a door was closed, he said, Inglish found a key to open it.