Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The engineer walks to a UTA Front Runner train at the intermodal hub in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 29, 2018. The 2018 Legislature passed SB136 which mandates changing the name of UTA to Transit District of Utah. UTA says the name change will cost $50 million.

At first blush, the idea of changing the name of the Utah Transit Authority as part of a sweeping change in the agency’s governing structure seemed to be a reasonable course to pursue. But news that the name change would cost in the neighborhood of $50 million sends the idea off the rails.

It’s enough money to buy at least a hundred buses, lay a dozen new miles of light rail track or fund all of UTA’s operations for a couple of months. There may be value in a name change as signaling a “fresh start” for the beleaguered transit agency, but spending that kind of money for cosmetic purposes is hard to justify under a reasonable cost-benefit analysis.

First, the agency’s public relations troubles are more the result of concerns over its corporate behavior than with the way it moves people from place to place. UTA patrons may have occasional complaints about routes or schedules, but there is no evidence of any prevailing dissatisfaction with overall operations. Second, the UTA brand has years of equity in the marketplace. It is familiar currency, and while it may not be the flashiest brand in public transportation, changing the UTA's name to Transit District of Utah doesn’t seem to be any kind of upgrade.

Legislation passed this year to restructure the agency’s governing mechanisms was necessary to place it under more effective oversight, create more accountability and guarantee that agency management conducts itself with greater transparency than has recently been the case. The idea of a name change was included in the legislative package to “have people start building confidence and trust in that organization,” according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville. It makes sense that a name change was considered as part of the overhaul, but not when the price tag is equivalent to what a school district would spend on a new, state-of-the-art high school campus.

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It appears the costs of a renaming campaign were not specifically vetted during the legislative process. The $50 million figure surfaced publicly after the law was passed. Fortunately, Gov. Gary Herbert says he’s not sure a name change is necessary or will have the hoped-for effects. “You can call it UTA. You can call it PTA. You can call it UPU or whatever it is they’ve got out there, but the public is going to make their determination ... based on the product, how it works, not on the name,” the governor told the Deseret News.

Herbert is right that what’s important is not the packaging, but what’s inside. The UTA brand may be tarnished, but it is not beyond rehabilitation. What the agency needs is to embark on a fresh course of effective, ethical and open management. That by itself will restore public confidence in the agency, regardless of what name it goes by.