SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Transit Authority trustees reluctantly voted Wednesday to support a legislative task force plan to replace their board with a new full-time, three-member management team.
The UTA board's new chairman, Greg Bell, told trustees that his discussions with House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and a co-chairman of the task force, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, had made it clear the proposed changes were "nonnegotiable."
Backing the new structure would show the Legislature "that we're serious about moving forward," Bell, a former state senator and lieutenant governor, said. "I think it takes us out of the politics of the bill."
Trustee Bret Millburn, a Davis County commissioner who served on the task force, said he thought "it would be wise on the part of this board to step forward and show a commitment."
But the 9-2 vote by trustees in favor of Bell's resolution followed the failure of a motion to instead try to make their case to the Legislature's Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force.
The task force met for a final time last week and unanimously endorsed a draft version of legislation that will be sponsored by the group's other co-chairman, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville.
The sweeping legislation will not only change how UTA is run, it will also allow the agency access for the first time to state transportation funds and impose new fees on electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.
Trustee Sherrie Hall Everett said lawmakers haven't heard from the 16-member board "intimately involved" in running UTA. She said she joined the board in 2016 prepared "to kick some tail," but found reforms were already underway.
She referred to the nonprosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office UTA signed last year, agreeing to cooperate with an ongoing federal investigation into transit development deals and submit to up to three years of federal oversight.
Longtime trustee Necia Christensen read a statement at the board meeting describing her pride in UTA's accomplishments and said she felt "just as indicted as if I were standing before a judge."
Christensen said that was "because what we have done is not good enough for the Legislature" or the media. "Why? We did our best. Isn't that good enough? We tried our best."
Everett and the former UTA board chairman, Robert McKinley, were the only votes in favor of attempting to meet with the task force — and the only votes against the resolution.
Hughes and Schultz both praised the final decision by trustees to accept the new structure.
"I'm hoping these changes will allow UTA to be seen as a stronger partner in transportation infrastructure," said Hughes, a former UTA chairman, calling the agency a "victim of its own success" that now needs full-time oversight.
The speaker said he understood the vote was a difficult one for trustees. However, he said, had they not chosen to go along with "more direct accountability," he didn't "know that it would have changed the prospects of the bill."
Numerous groups are already behind the changes to UTA, including the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties, said Hughes, seen as the driving force behind the legislation.
Schultz said there are only two choices for UTA, "either a full takeover by the state or a three-member" board. He said the take force legislation will seek a study to determine if UTA should be brought under state control.
"We're going to look at that, if we can have savings by bringing it all under one roof," Schultz said. Concerns have been raised that UTA's $2 billion debt would hurt Utah's credit rating under a state takeover.
He said the legislation would put in place the three new board members who would be nominated by local governments and appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert while the study is underway.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, wasn't sure last week that putting UTA in the hands of three trustees was the way to go. He said then that lawmakers didn't "just want to rearrange chairs on the deck."
Now, Niederhauser sounds convinced the changes will do more than that.
"This is a new era now, I believe, for UTA," the Senate president told reporters Wednesday. "This kind of a reset, I think, has been needed for a long time."
Niederhauser said he believes the proposed changes will pass the Legislature this session. He said he has wanted to make sure the task force didn't "get out ahead" of the transit agency and those it serves in making the governance changes.
"I believe they have effectively brought stakeholders in," the Senate president said. "With that kind of buy-in, I haven't heard anything. If there were problems, we'd be hearing about it."7 comments on this story
He said the new governance isn't intended to satisfy lawmakers but the public, especially in Salt Lake, Utah and other counties that rejected a transportation tax increase in 2015 known as Prop 1.
"UTA has had a trust problem. It was very evident" when the proposition was voted down, he said, "because people are struggling with what was going on with UTA."
Niederhauser aded that the agency already has made improvements.
"I think things are running a lot better at UTA — so far," he said. "This is just another step in the governance. But if this passes, this is not what we've known UTA to be. This is going to be a completely different organization."