SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers laid out a roadmap Thursday for big changes in transportation, including tax and fee increases and replacing the Utah Transit Authority's volunteer board with three full-time trustees while keeping the top boss.
There are already signs there may be a rough road ahead for the draft bill, unanimously approved by members of the Legislature's Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force after a Thursday hearing.
The task force met throughout the interim and had been expected to decide on proposed legislation before the start of the 2018 Legislature, but got stuck over how UTA should be run.
Some key lawmakers are waiting to be sold on the task force proposal.
"We just don’t want to rearrange chairs on the deck. We want to know this is actually going to be a better governance model," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said.
The push for new oversight at UTA comes as lawmakers look at starting to use state transportation funds for transit projects, something the draft bill would allow as long as at least 35 percent of the cost is paid for with money from someplace else.
UTA has been the subject of multiple critical legislative audits and last year signed a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office in exchange for agreeing to cooperate with an ongoing federal investigation and submit to federal monitoring.
Niederhauser said there are legislators and others who blame distrust of UTA on the defeat of a sales tax increase for transportation known as Proposition 1 in Salt Lake and Utah counties in 2015.
"UTA knows this. They've admitted they have a public relations problem and that usually stems from a real problem," Niederhauser said, adding that the transit agency has made efforts to address issues raised over the years.
But, he said, "the results of those problems linger for many years, and it's hard to bring trust back into the system. You almost have to reorganize, change the name, in order to get a fresh start."
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, served as a UTA trustee and backs the change. Hughes has called the proposed new structure a "very strong model" and said it's critical issue for the 45-day session that started Monday.
The speaker said the transit agency is "a victim of its own success in many ways. Its board model, I think, has outlived the size and scope and impact of that transit authority."
The task force looked a number of options for UTA, including the state taking it over. But there were issues with the state having to assume the transit agency's $2 billion in debt, so the focus shifted to changing the governance structure.
Under the draft bill, the 16-member volunteer UTA board would be eliminated in favor of three full-time trustees nominated by local government and appointed by the governor with the consent of the state Senate.
The CEO and president position, now held by Jerry Benson, would become an executive director post. The draft bill calls for a new, nine member local advisory board to set compensation for the trustees and make recommendations.
New UTA Board Chairman Greg Bell, a former lieutenant governor who writes a column for the Deseret News, said after the hearing he agrees the current board is too big but not that three full-time trustees needed to be put in place.
Bell suggested a smaller part-time board might be a better option, as long as members were paid and had adequate staff. The Legislature, he pointed out, operates that way.
But Bell said the proposal is "not the end of the world."
Finding more money to make up for the state's lagging gas tax revenues that have to be supplemented by some $600 million annually from the state's general fund is also seen as a priority this session.
The draft bill, which will be introduced shortly and debated this session, would raise registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, and boost both sales and transient room taxes.
Environmental groups, car dealers and others lined up to raise concerns at the hearing that increasing registration fees for the alternative fuel vehicles could hurt efforts to improve air quality.
They testified that boosting the registration fee from the current $44 for most vehicles to $75 for hybrid and to $200 for electric vehicles would make Utahns less likely to drive cleaner-fueled cars.
Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, the co-chairman of the task force, said the increases were based on what an average driver pays in gas taxes annually, about $170 to $180 and intended to ensure everyone contributes to road costs.
The draft bill also attempts to force counties in UTA's service district to impose the full 1.05 percent of optional local sales taxes available for mass transit. If they don't, the state will impose a state sales tax on July 1, 2022, to make up the difference.
For example, in Salt Lake and Utah counties, where voters rejected Proposition 1 — a ¼ of a cent increase (or one penny for every $4 spent) for transportation — sales taxes would go up that amount in 2022 under the draft bill.9 comments on this story
The draft bill would hike the state transient room tax from the 0.32 percent imposed last year to help pay for outdoor recreation infrastructure, to 5 percent. The additional revenue would go toward public transit projects.
The Senate president was taken aback by the size of the transient room tax increase.
"I personally have a struggle with that," Niederhauser said. "We're focusing on one industry."
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who sponsored the new state tax on hotel rooms last session, said while tourists "ought to pay for some of the things we're providing for them," he opposed such a large increase.