Speaker of the Utah House Greg Hughes, R-Draper, says he will appoint longtime LGBT rights leader and local businessperson Babs De Lay to the board of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). The move comes after three other board members resigned when their involvement in a controversial trip to Switzerland came to light in November.
"This was something I actually had in the works prior to the Switzerland reports," Hughes says. Speaking to City Weekly from New York where he was on vacation, Hughes said the changeup has been planned for months, since it became clear that Proposition 1, a ballot initiative in the last election that would have allocated more money to UTA, looked like it was going to fail. "As I watched Prop 1 in October look like it wasn't going to pass in Salt Lake County— a county that has traditionally supported mass transit and transit infrastructure—I started wondering what that really meant."
Hughes, who himself once served as the chairman of the UTA board, says that while he was with the agency, he was "laser-like focused" on long-term planning. But with the defeat of Prop 1, he now realizes that "long-term planning doesn't do much good if you don't have public confidence in the bread-and-butter basic needs, service and infrastructure we already have."
Hughes says it's a false narrative that now former UTA board member Sheldon Killpack—also a former state Senate majority leader—resigned because of the scandal around the Switzerland trip, but that Hughes has been looking for a shakeup on the UTA board and Killpack's departure had been planned.
"I think Babs has a great eye for the system," he says. "She works downtown, she lives downtown, she sees [Trax], she uses it. She's been on the [Salt Lake City] Planning Commission, she's a businessperson. So on so many fronts, her leadership will be phenomenal for UTA."
Hughes says he and De Lay have been friends for 20 years, meeting when De Lay was looking at some properties downtown that Hughes, who works in construction and property management, was working on at the time. "Actually, at the inauguration for [former Gov.] Olene Walker, Babs and I joked that we should show up as a couple."
"I feel really excited," says De Lay, who also volunteers as a columnist for City Weekly, writing about community events and topics. "I was a planning commissioner for Salt Lake City for eight years, and I found that one of the most interesting and educational times of my life, learning how my city runs and doesn't run. And I think this will be a similar opportunity, only in a bigger way."
De Lay acknowledges that UTA has had no small amount of bad press in the last decade, but describes the agency as "an essential part of the being" of Utah. "I may be the only [board] member who actually takes Trax, and I may be the only member who lives at a Trax station and is a user of the system. I'm a huge fan of public transportation and, in my house, we try to use Trax as exclusively as we can and not pollute."
De Lay points to estimates that Utah's population could double in the coming decades, and says if Utah's public-transit system can't update and be as user-friendly and affordable as possible, not only will it stunt the state economically, but it could "return us to the 'pea soup days' of pollution when everyone was burning coal. We are all going to have to rely on public transportation in a major way."
Some short-term changes she would be in favor of include free fares on New Year's Eve, when getting party-goers out of cars and onto buses is critical. Also keeping service up and running during holidays as well as on late nights and weekends. "I hope I can figure out the beast and help move it forward," says De Lay, "because I think we're all sitting on pins and needles wondering how transit is going to affect our lives as we move forward."
Alex Cragun, vice president of the Utah Transit Riders Union—an advocacy group for more efficient and usable public transit—says the group is thrilled to have someone on the board who recognizes the problems a growing population has without sufficient public transportation. However, Cragun says, his group feels that the real-estate development community is already overrepresented, and they would like to see more board members with differing backgrounds.