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A bill to reform how the Utah Transit Authority is governed easily passed its first stop on Thursday.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously to pass SB174 by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, and sent it to the full Senate.

It follows years of controversy over high UTA executive salaries and bonuses, extensive international travel, sweetheart deals with developers and, most recently, whether its meetings should be open to the public.

Some critics had called for UTA board members to be elected to increase accountability.

Instead, Harper's bill, as now amended, would have eight members appointed by local cities and counties — drawn into districts based on how much transit tax they pay and their population. Members would be confirmed by the state Senate.

A member of the Utah Transportation Commission would also be appointed to the UTA board.

That would drop the current 16 UTA board members to nine. Harper said the current board had grown too large. He said Senate confirmation would help ensure people with the appropriate skills are appointed.

The bill would also ban UTA from entering into partnerships for more transit-oriented developments beyond eight previously approved by the Legislature, and would require formal cost-benefit analyses of ones in the works to show these investments benefit the public and would improve transit service.

In such developments, UTA usually uses excess land it owns at rail stations to partner with developers for projects designed to increase transit ridership. But audits have criticized sweetheart deals for some developers and building large garages for their projects that sat mostly empty for years because of developer delays.

The bill also would create a new citizen advisory board for UTA, and beef up its customer relations operations.

Also created would be a task force to study how the state should coordinate future funding — and possible tax hikes — for transit, highways, airports and other transportation projects.

UTA officials were present at the hearing, but chose not to testify on it.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, questioned if the bill was coming too soon to see if recent reforms announced by UTA may solve problems.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, a former member of the UTA Board, said she has seen the agency claim too many times through the years that it solved problems, only to see more emerge.

"I've seen new beginnings over and over again," she said. "I think we need to start anew, and I think this piece of legislation will give us that opportunity. I see opportunities for openness, transparency — and those things, I think, have been missing for a long time."

Harper said, "There are good changes on the way at UTA. I have seen some good things happen."

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