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Cover Story

Money Train Page 1

Critics complain that UTA cronies keep taking taxpayers for a ride

By Katharine Biele
Posted // May 29,2013 -

For years, Liesa Manuel took the bus and train from her home in Rose Park to her job at a credit union on Highland Drive—10 miles away. If everything went smoothly, it took her an hour. But it rarely went smoothly.

“I had just had a surgery, and UTA was—no joke—changing schedules every three months,” Manuel says. “I was dealing with the schedule changes, getting bad information from their call center, and then I was standing across the street in the rain and I just couldn’t physically take it anymore.”

She bought a car.

Back in 2005 at a Utah Transit Authority trustee meeting, then-Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon asked John Inglish, the general manager of the Utah Transit Authority, to consider a no-fare system or at least reduced fares for the poor. “UTA is not a social service agency,” Inglish said in response. “We are not in the business of identifying what people’s incomes are.”

But, interestingly, UTA is in the business of business—for its board members and top staff—despite years of bad publicity and ongoing, very public problems. As it opened its $350 million airport TRAX line recently, UTA saw a new round of dissatisfaction. The excitement was palpable, but the disappointment is inevitable, and the reality problematic.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, was “excited to park at work and take the Green line to the airport until I realized that my flight leaves at 6 a.m. in the morning—too early for TRAX to get me there—and arrives home at 12:25 a.m. the next morning—too late for TRAX to get me back.”

King says he’s looking forward to another attempt at the end of the month when his flight schedules will allow him to take TRAX, but he’ll still have to walk or transfer trains to get to the airport.

“UTA presents all of its critics as being anti-transit,” says Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council. “And the problem is, some liberals believe it. It’s not enough to just like clean air and transit. Anyone who cares about transit needs to look at the need for reform in UTA.” Frankel is an accidental detractor; his dealings with UTA over water and wetlands soured him on the agency.

Whether you’re giddy about the prospect of mass transit or not, there are factors to consider. UTA is neither convenient nor affordable and, sadly, the clean-air promise is lacking foundation. A 2008 legislative audit found UTA to be a net polluter. And while steps are being taken, not even increased ridership of light rail will help in the near future.

Ridership and pollution, however, are only part of the problem. While UTA is serving only a small percentage of travelers, it is lining the pockets of developers while organizing tours to exotic locales on the premise that there will be a public benefit.

“Since around 1970, the modern rail-transit boom has led American cities to spend close to $100 billion building, and billions more operating, new rail-transit lines,” wrote public-policy analyst Randal O’Toole in a Cato Institute paper called “Defining Success, the Case Against Rail Transit,” published in 2010.

This analysis indicates that these new lines almost always waste taxpayer dollars. Instead of providing cost-effective transportation, rail transit mainly transfers wealth from taxpayers to rail contractors, downtown property owners and a few transit riders who prefer trains to buses.

In 2011-12, UTA spent $610,840 on travel to such transit-oriented countries as, ahem, Cuba, according to a Salt Lake Tribune investigation. And while, according to an MSNBC nationwide comparison of government officials, its chief executive has been one of the most overpaid in the United States, the agency itself was in debt to the tune of $1.8 billion at the end of 2010. Since taxpayers, through local sales tax and federal subsidies, are on the hook for the mounting costs of mass transit, critics decry UTA’s cronyism, arguing that these deals on wheels are taking taxpayers for a ride.

When It’s OK to Rob a Bank
“Doing transit badly is in no one’s interest,” Frankel says. “If it’s corrupt, you’re going to get bad service.”

To understand the charge of corruption, you first have to understand transit-oriented developments (TODs) and the role they play in UTA’s planning and expansion. So, we’ll start with the controversy surrounding the Galena site in Draper, which goes back to 2000. That was when the Utah Legislature passed a law placing a conservation easement on 252 acres of the state-owned lands on the Jordan River.

Turns out, this is one of the few undisturbed archeological sites in the valley that is 3,000 years old. To the naked eye, it just looks like a lot of dirt, rocks and brush. But 50 centimeters below ground, there is evidence of shallow pits and the growing of maize, as well as 30,000 artifacts. The site became interesting to archeologists because it helped answer a hotly debated question of when agriculture developed in the Great Basin. It was apparently interesting enough to divert Bangerter Highway south around the site in its path west. In 2000, the Legislature even protected the land as open space.

Meanwhile, UTA was looking for a site for a Transit Oriented Development for FrontRunner, its train from Salt Lake City to Provo. In October 2007, it selected 14000 South as one of several alternatives. After all, it was just south of Bangerter Highway, well outside the Galena property, and could spur development in the prison area for both Bluffdale and Draper. Also, Doug Clark, then managing director of business growth for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, says he was negotiating to donate the land to UTA. In a 2011 Tribune story, Clark said he was fired for refusing to assist with the site development favored by then-Speaker of the House Greg Curtis. Other state employees were also dismissed after being involved in the TOD deals.

What happened over the next few years is a study in perplexity. UTA abandoned the 14000 South site even though Draper and Bluffdale had both endorsed it. The agency then bought 35 acres at 14600 South for $6.5 million.

In 2009, then-Speaker of the House Greg Curtis, admitting he could “wear the lawyer hat and the speaker’s hat,” persuaded the state against signing an easement for the Galena property. Curtis, who also lobbies for UTA, wanted to swap public for private land so his client, Woodside Homes, could benefit from the FrontRunner development, according to numerous media accounts.

In Utah, conflicts of interest are a way of life and, many say, inevitable. State ethics laws, therefore, focus on disclosure rather than recusal. “As long as I disclose I’m going to rob the bank, it’s OK,” Frankel quips.

Then suddenly, UTA decided to go for a third alternative—one within the Galena property itself, at 13500 South.

In 2008, UTA flew members of the Draper City Council to Texas for a tour, after which they returned in favor of the Galena site. UTA attorney Bruce Jones discussed the conflicts of board members Curtis, developer Terry Diehl, and Gregory Simonsen. Simonsen, who represented Woodside Homes, ultimately resigned.

Diehl said he would abstain from decisions related to the site, but then was listed as a contact person for development of the TOD. Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City, requested an audit of the agency and its conflict-of-interest policies.

In 2009, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the easement that protected the Galena property and sent UTA to a fourth site at 12800 South. The high-speed FrontRunner train already would be stopping at 10600 South, not even four miles away—a six-minute train ride.

The 2010 legislative audit requested by Fisher found nothing to substantiate claims that Diehl had interfered with the site selection: “Allegations that one trustee had used his influence to steer the site selection of the Draper/Bluffdale FrontRunner stop proved to be unsupported. In addition, we were unable to identify any information that the same trustee improperly used nonpublic information.”

But the audit also said that Diehl may have violated the Public Transit District Act—which, “depending on the interpretation of the law ... may constitute a class B misdemeanor”—and recommended that the violation be sent to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.

Two years later, the Attorney General’s Office investigation “is still ongoing,” says spokesman Paul Murphy.

“Sometimes. investigations are very complicated and have a lot of moving parts,” Murphy says.

It’s more cut-and-dried for Frankel, who calls it cronyism. “UTA selected the cadre of developers, and we got nothing out of it from a transit perspective,” he says.

Why not benefit developers? Because if you’re focused on the developer, you lose sight of the public. It drives decisions, says citizen advocate Claire Geddes. “And they aren’t always the best decisions. The Draper station is a complete example of that. If it was just the best location, it would have been somewhere else.”

Robert Huefner, retired director of the Public Administration Program at the University of Utah, is a longtime advocate of mass transit, but even he questions UTA’s financial direction. “Transit-oriented development is essential. It must not be compromised, either in fact or perception, by personal financial interests. Those with personal financial interests should be heard by, but not be part of, agencies using our public funds and public powers.”

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // September 18,2013 at 04:51

We should have the death penalty for crooked politicians and their deveopr friends who ripp off the public.  

 

Posted // September 18,2013 at 23:04 - True, that may be a bit harsh but they should have to pay, something, some jail time or restitution. Today some guy took his daughter home in a custody battle and is facing 10 years in prison, UTA officers steal 100 million and they just go back to their cushy job the next day. Something is wrong here!!!

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // June 4,2013 at 17:17

What a waste. . . . Please, just SHUT IT DOWN!

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // June 4,2013 at 11:24

Kathy Biele is as good a journalist as UTA is a corrupt organization. There is no possible reason to defend the extravagant practices of UTA which increases costs while reducing services. UTA is a refuge for highly-paid scoundrels. How many people does Trax have to kill for the people of Utah to wake up? How many bus routes have to be cancelled before Utahns come to their senses about this mismanaged organization?

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // June 4,2013 at 01:33

Katharine Biele.  Once again, you prove your jounalist prowess.  I've been reading your articles for years.  You dare to explore different views of stories that don't always mesh with the rhetoric we hear ad nauseum from paid political hacks.  That's why nationally-recognized publications like Christian Science Monitor have hired you to write for them as well. . . it's a compliment for City Weekly to have a talented writer like your self on their staff.  

I would suppose many of the comments on this article are paid UTA politicos.  Years ago, there was a group of people that protested the light rail ground breaking.  The protestors outnumbered UTA officials and fat cats by 50 to 1.  They actually bussed people from UTA to attend the rally. . . they were ON THE CLOCK.  UTA had spent a quarter million bucks in public relations for this event.

Some determined citizens with no budget let their voices be heard.  The hottest issue in town in the 1990s was light rail and the opposition to it.  But like all projects that our rulers who stand to make big bucks from the contracts. . . they roll over their opposition like so many commuter trains.  Then people eventually give up.  It's so refreshing to hear the truth.

Oh. . . it's easy to toot your own horn when you have unlimited tax dollars and a budget.  Enlightened citizens have kept track of UTAs follies and total failure to transport for years.  I admire Zach Frankel and Claire Geddes for having the courage to speak out when all the "cool kids" talk about how wonderful light rail and Frontrunner is.  Facts are facts.  Using UTAs own figures like you did, you lifted the curtain a little bit on the underbelly of UTA.  It's nice to see reporting like this.  It seems many media outlets are just another PR rag for UTA.  City Weekly has a role to play in Salt Lake media being a vehicle for "the other side of the story. "  Thank you for your honest reporting.  I'm a fan of yours.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // June 1,2013 at 02:26

First off, seeking a critique of mass transit from Randal O’Toole is a lot like seeking advice on contraception from Rick Santorum!  His assumptions are grounded in the thinking that cars are a necessity, while transit (or at least transit for those who could be driving) is a luxury.   Those of us, who have studied books like Suburban Nation or watched the PBS documentary Building Healthy Communities, understand the damage that auto-oriented environments inflict on us and understand the benefits of moving away from automobile dependence. Public transit is the necessity; relying on cars to travel everywhere is the luxury! It is an unfortunate reality that funding constraints have forced UTA to cannibalize its bus system in order provide rail service. However, a transit system, which only serves captive riders and never evolves to serve the needs of choice riders, will accomplish little in terms of improving air quality, reducing carbon emissions, and all the other things that are necessary for people to develop more sustainable and healthier lifestyles. Rather than attacking UTA for having to make tough choices in the face of a constrained budget, it would be much more productive to demand that our political leaders provide more funding for transportation alternatives. I find it absurd to criticize UTA for spending a few billion dollars on infrastructure, while overlooking the much larger sums of money spent in recent years in support of auto-oriented infrastructure in order to keep up with the traffic demands of the sprawl resulting from shortsighted land use policies. Calling UTA a net air polluter in light of the relatively massive amounts of air pollution produced by the automobiles along the Wasatch Front is definitely the pot calling the kettle black! In the future, I suggest the author consult sources that are based on sound research rather than selecting a source that will support an anecdotal slant on the topic.

 

 
 
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