News | Under the Bus: A legislator’s effort to rein in UTA gets the standard heave-ho 

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For all the talk about immigration, education and ugly baby issues, the 2008 Utah Legislature pretty much crushed any substantive dialogue around public transit, except to throw a few more people onto an already crowded Utah Transit Authority board.

Maybe it was part of the effort to get along in a nice way, so everything seems calm and cooperative before the November elections. And while some legislators say they were persuaded by pleas from the Utah Transit Authority, they just didn’t seem to have the collective will to get tough this session.

Rep. Wayne Harper, the dapper and understated Republican from West Jordan, has been working on “tough” for a couple of years now. Last year, he wanted to just be done with UTA altogether and fold its operations into the Utah Department of Transportation.

This time around, Harper tried to tackle pieces of the problem, highlighted in a January legislative performance audit of UTA.

“The Audit Committee was told to make sure UTA was doing its statutory duty,” Harper says. “The disabled community and others came to me saying they felt UTA was moving away from its mission to provide efficient and reliable transit.”

But it was hard to figure out just how well UTA was doing because, as the audit pointed out, “much of the agency’s passenger data is unreliable.” Even as TRAX ridership was increasing, UTA still pumped up the figures about 20 percent. Auditors couldn’t tell just how an apparently precipitous decline in bus riders was affecting the system.

Then there was the budget and this sobering statistic: “Over a 10-year period, UTA’s total annual expenses increased from $77 million to $201 million.” But UTA has been relying more and more on sales taxes as opposed to federal grants, which means bigger hits to the taxpayers. Also, the agency’s executive salaries were considered way high.

The audit also touched on UTA’s fare pricing strategy (whatever that may be), the pollution produced by its buses, and its governance. “The Legislature may wish to take some of the same steps used by other states to provide better oversight of UTA and hold the agency more accountable for its use of public funds,” the audit concluded.

Harper took it all seriously, and sponsored or co-sponsored six transit-related bills. Only one—the bigger board bill that he co-sponsored—passed.

“My original bill was probably too far-reaching,” Harper admitted of HB188. “Transit Revisions.” But he thought his substitute bill was really good. It focused on the core duties of UTA, like that data problem.

Harper probably sensed from committee hearings that things weren’t going his way. A no-brainer bill of his to offer light-rail fare cuts on bad pollution days hit a brick wall.

Things had started badly when the bill came out with a fiscal note estimating $3.9 million in lost revenue. Eventually, the fiscal analyst amended that to $1.4 million, but it still seemed too costly for a little cleaner air.

Harper had patterned the bill after a practice in Fairfax, Va., but later said he discovered that most transit districts handled fare reductions on their own, no statutes involved. And, oh, yeah, Harper saw the light and talked about giving UTA a chance to work this out on its own. Forget his first bill, he said. Go for a substitute calling for interim study of the pollution issue.

That idea died, not from logistical problems but from the fear that somehow Harper’s bill would be an affront to legislative managers, who normally decide what gets studied. Harper is hopeful that his study will get the go-ahead anyway. But he has to act nice.

But back to Transit Revisions II: Harper finally pushed a slimmer bill onto the House floor where a friendly little amendment popped up from Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful. At the height of Salt Lake City’s inversion season, she wanted auditors to “emphasize pollution mitigation in establishing the policies for district operations.”

While her amendment passed unanimously, the bill itself went down. Legislators really, really wanted to give UTA a chance to do good.

Harper could see he’d lost another battle. It didn’t matter that representatives for the disabled said they’d voiced concerns about UTA for years. What mattered was that you gave UTA a chance.

“I think they got the message,” Harper says.

The question is, just which message would that be?

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