The Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force seems to know the state has to grab UTA by the horns. It may have to face up to seizing the rest of the beast, too.
The task force, appointed by the Utah Legislature to review oversight of the Utah Transit Authority, has been looking at a few options to make mass transit more accountable. One notion is to put it under the purview of the Utah Department of Transportation, with its priorities set by the Utah Transportation Commission. That has the advantage of a more direct link to the governor, who appoints all commissioners with consent of the Utah Senate.
The Transportation Commission makes recommendations on highway projects, and it makes some sense to coordinate mass transit better with road construction. But highways get the bulk of attention and money already. If a move to better manage mass transit ends up making transit less of an option for Utahns, have we done the right thing?
Transit ridership is a tiny fraction compared to the number of drivers on the road, but it’s not just riders who gain from a robust transit system. Air quality, affordable housing, open space and other quality of life issues are influenced by bus and train routes, and whoever governs transit needs to understand that.
If UDOT and the Transportation Commission are the best option, at least we’ll know where the buck stops: the governor. Currently, UTA’s board is appointed by a dozen or more different entities — a classic example of “accountable to everyone and answerable to no one.”
There is worry over UTA’s $2 billion debt and its impact on the state’s credit rating. The task force is considering two options, one of which would keep UTA facilities and its debt separate.
That reluctance is understandable, but it’s really an argument for taking greater state control now. Ultimately, the state is responsible for UTA and its debt anyway. With UTA looking to borrow more and questions remaining over its responsiveness to taxpayers, can the state afford to keep UTA and its debt at arms length?
If anyone is still wondering if all this is still necessary, look no further than the latest retirement plan for UTA executives, which is triple what UTA’s rank and file workers get. There just isn’t a credible argument that UTA can’t find quality executives without these compensation packages. Meanwhile, ridership has been flat even as the population increases in UTA’s service area.
The task force has done good work in assessing the challenge. Still ahead is finding the best model to protect mass transit and the people who pay for it.