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West Valley City • The Utah Transit Authority board started planning Friday what the agency's services should look like by 2040 and how to rebuild public trust after scandals and controversies to allow tax hikes needed to fund expansion for a growing population.
"What does success look like in 2040?" board member Charles Henderson asked his compatriots to discuss during a two-day retreat that began Friday. He said the board hopes to publish a strategic plan for that later.
The retreat at Embassy Suites hotel in West Valley City began with board members saying what each personally hopes UTA may achieve over the next 23 years, and what problems the agency first must face and solve.
Board Chairman Robert McKinley said state projections show the Wasatch Front population will double in the next few decades, and the geographically constrained area cannot double its highways so expanding transit is critical.
"How in the world do we pay for that?" he asked, "There isn't any way that UTA can pay for that on its own," and federal grants are expected to dissipate.
Brent Taylor, who is also mayor of North Ogden, said UTA must find a way "to be viewed with trust in the eyes of taxpayers so there is a viable path to fund" tax hikes likely needed, after scandals over sweetheart deals for developers, high executive pay and extensive travel that have led to an ongoing federal investigation and oversight.
UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said a few weeks ago that his agency cannot afford all the TRAX extensions, new bus rapid transit routes and additional streetcar systems now contemplated in long-term regional transportation plans unless residents approve a big tax hike.
He said those plans assumed that transit sales tax would now be at a penny per dollar in purchases. It is far less: 0.69 of a cent per dollar in Salt Lake County. Raising it to a full penny per dollar would require a 45 percent sales tax boost.
Greg Bell, board member and a former lieutenant governor, said, "We don't have that capital money right now because: A. We've got to get our public relations act together; B. We've got to face our debt, and it's alarming." UTA spends more on debt service than bus service after years of borrowing to accelerate building TRAX and FrontRunner lines.
Bell added that UTA needs to "look around for other sources of funding as we talk to our partners, because there's not going to be big federal dollars flying in here."
Board member Cortland Ashton said the board needs to be more assertive to build trust. "We get in trouble if we don't have strong boards. ... We can't be rubber stamps. We need to roll up our sleeves. We've got to go to work."
P. Bret Millburn, who also is a Davis County commissioner, said while the board needs to rebuild trust, it must reach a point in which it quits beating itself up over past mistakes and moves forward. "How many times can you say you are sorry or ask for forgiveness?"
Taylor said, "When change happens is when people stop bringing up the past. I think there is a lot of change that still needs to be done."
UTA and federal prosecutors recently announced an immunity deal in exchange for the agency cooperating with an ongoing criminal probe of former board members and employees and land deals.
Several board members at Friday's retreat said UTA should focus on improving service now after completing TRAX and FrontRunner lines.
Henderson said UTA also needs to discuss technology changes in transportation that will affect what it offers, including the growth of Uber and Lyft, car sharing, and autonomous vehicles.