This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
After scouring the world for a new leader for Utah's largest transit agency, the Utah Transit Authority's board of directors ended up promoting from within.
After a year as UTA's acting president, 32-year UTA veteran Jerry Benson was given the title officially this week. This is what UTA has always done over its 45-year history. Benson worked for his predecessor, Mike Allegra, who worked for his predecessor, John Inglish, who worked for his predecessor, John Pingree.
The question now is whether Benson, raised in UTA's culture, somehow can do what Utahns want by transforming the agency into something more responsive to both taxpayers and riders. Benson's biggest advantage, his inside knowledge, is also his biggest liability.
His challenge is steep. UTA's fares are too high, its service is too light in the neighborhoods that need it most and it has perpetuated a culture of distance from its customers perhaps best illustrated by executive bonuses that were more money than many of their riders made in a year.
The big bonuses are gone now, but not before Benson had benefitted. One year it was more than $29,000, and another it was more than $15,000. His compensation is already in the neighborhood of $300,000, and now he's probably in for a hefty increase.
And if Benson is to lead the agency into the sunshine, he was showing no signs of it three months ago when the Tribune reported that UTA had decided to close its committee meetings to the public. Benson at the time accused the Tribune of concocting facts and backed the decision to close, but two weeks later his bosses on the board reversed themselves and opened the meetings.
UTA does many things right. The buses and trains are clean and well-maintained, and it was named the best large transit agency in the nation in 2014 by its peers at the American Public Transportation Association, in large part because of its aggressive rail expansion.
But those who gave that award aren't riding the bus around here. In fact, a lot of people aren't. Ridership numbers indicate less than 5 percent of the population is using UTA. Mass transit is often a hard sell in car-friendly America, but other cities have made more progress in recent years than we have. And when compared against earning power, UTA fares are among the highest in the nation, which doesn't help.
UTA is caught in a vice of its own making. It seeks more sales tax money (its main source of revenue) to add service, but it hasn't convinced taxpayers it will use the money efficiently. New leadership is the chance to shake off the past.
"Coming soon is a set of service standards and a pledge to the riders about our service," Benson said in accepting the permanent job. "We'll use that as a basis for planning and designing service going forward."
New standards and a pledge? That won't even scratch the surface of what's needed. If Benson is going to get UTA headed in the right direction, he'll have to do more to switch tracks.