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Jerry Benson, the Utah Transit Authority's new president and CEO, just finished a two-month "listening tour" with riders, employees and community leaders. He found the agency "has gaps to fill," and Wednesday unveiled plans to start addressing those.
He vowed a return to basics, such as finding ways to provide more service without necessarily raising sales taxes or fares. At the same time, he said citizens should consider tax hikes if they want the "great systems" that some cities enjoy.
"Some of our current financial strategies are not sustainable," he told the UTA Board in what he called his "State of UTA address." "We need to either scale back our expectations for the kind of transportation system we can provide, or find some other strategy" including more partnering with other groups and governments.
He noted that current regional transportation plans for future projects assumed that sales tax for transit would be 1 cent per dollar on purchases by 2017. It is far less, between 0.4 and 0.69 cents per dollar in the six counties served by UTA.
Voters last year rejected Prop 1 to raise such taxes in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties amid concerns over high UTA executive pay and travel, but voters passed it in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties.
Benson said areas such as Denver, Houston and Dallas all charge about 1 cent per dollar in sales tax for transit, and Los Angeles just raised it to 2 cents per dollar.
"We are quite a bit behind progressive cities of our size in the West," Benson said.
"It's one of the important things for this community to think about. If we want to be the kind of area that is real competitive in attracting employers to the region who want to locate here because of our great transit network, it needs to be funded."
Until such tax increases come, Benson said UTA needs to find ways to improve service as much as possible with the resources it has.
"Things will be tight for a few years, and we will be facing some tough choices," he said.
Some steps he is proposing include reducing debt and interest by cutting back borrowing or leasing for routine purchases. He called for UTA to quit using reserves, or rainy day funds, for operations. Also, he wants to reduce maintenance backlogs that may increase long-term costs and hurt service.
He wants UTA to try to pay off the $2 billion it has in debt, perhaps ahead of schedule, so it will have more money for service in the long-term.
"We need to put ourselves on a course where we don't have to use these sort of short-term financial strategies that create a bigger challenge in the future," he said.
Still, he also called for delivering more service including earlier in the morning, later at night and on weekends.
That could happen, he said, by "providing some critical scrutiny of our routes and schedules, and, if possible, streamlining that service."
He pointed to a change in ski buses, as an example. Utah is offering more hours of service in canyons by reducing direct routes from downtown Salt Lake City and asking skiers to use other existing bus and train routes to connect to ski buses.
"We will be scouring the budget for opportunities to reduce costs," Benson said. "Our level of service is lower than it should be, but our level of funding is lower than it should be for what the community plans and anticipates."
UTA must warn cities and others that seek new rail or bus rapid transit projects that the agency cannot afford them unless they find new funding sources, Benson said.
"We do need to re-set expectations with our partners that UTA can't bankroll new projects without new funding, but we're not hanging out the 'closed' sign" and will help explore ways to make projects happen, he said.
Benson envisions more partnerships with human-service agencies and transportation groups to help find connections beyond where UTA serves. He said a new website, Utahridelink.com, seeks to offer one-stop shopping for options from Uber to bike sharing and services for the disabled or veterans.
Benson called for several other improvements.
"We have the opportunity to be a better communicator to provide the public, taxpayers, leaders and our riders with more information," he said, noting the agency plans better use of websites and soon will livestream UTA Board meetings.
UTA departments are starting "voice of the customer" committees to regularly review comments and suggestions from customer "in real time as it comes in."
Finally, Benson said UTA is working on a simplified fare system, and is working to improve the reliability of ticket-vending machines and electronic-fare card systems.