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Utah Transit Authority board members were asked Wednesday to lower a goal that UTA executives and employees must meet this year to collect bonuses.

The request, coming just days after a Salt Lake Tribune story on large incentive payouts last year to top UTA officials, was unanimously torpedoed by the board's Planning and Development Committee.

"I am concerned that changing it looks like maybe we are doing some smoke-and-mirrors thing," said board member Necia Christensen.

"The public relations challenge is huge," added board member Bret Millburn, a Davis County commissioner.

Records show UTA employees last year split about $750,000 in bonuses for hitting all their goals — with top executives getting as much as $25,000 apiece, The Tribune reported Sunday. Critics said the goals were too easy to achieve, especially given UTA's recent flat ridership, and its longer-term struggle with heavy debt and high fares.

UTA executives on Wednesday asked the committee to change a goal for how much the agency subsidizes each passenger trip with taxes instead of fares. The board set a 2013 goal of $3.52 per ride. UTA staff asked that it be adjusted to $3.85 — an easier standard to meet. "It's 33 cents. That's a big deal," Christensen said.

UTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Biles said the original goal was set in error, in part, because it was figured using an early mistaken projection for ridership — 46.8 million riders for the year — instead of the 44.5 million-rider goal the board eventually approved. He said that error wasn't caught until after goals were set.

Also, he said when UTA tried to fix scheduling problems with the new FrontRunner South line with a special change day in February, it added extra bus service as part of the solution that increased costs by nearly $4 million — which also affected the subsidy.

Biles said the $3.85 subsidy per ride, if adopted as a goal, would still require some stretching to achieve, in part because ridership has been stagnant this year.

"Right now we're not on track to get 44.5 million" riders, he said.

Ridership has been essentially flat despite the addition of the FrontRunner South line between Salt Lake City and Provo in December and the new airport TRAX line in April. UTA also plans to add the Draper TRAX extension next month, and the new Sugar House streetcar line in December.

"Once you set a goal, the goal is the goal" and should not be changed, complained committee chairman Charles Henderson. "What's the point of setting a goal if you're not striving for it."

Board member Chris Bleak concurred.

"You set a goal, and you don't change it," he said. "If you want to adjust it next year, then that's great. But this year, it is what it is. If you don't make it, that's not the end of the world."

The full UTA board could still override the committee's decision to reject the goal adjustment. "But that's not going to happen," Christensen predicted.

After the meeting, UTA spokesman Remi Barron said UTA wanted to clarify that, "The request to change the goal didn't have anything to do with incentive pay. It was sought to make goals more reflective of the current budget situation."

The subsidy goal is one of several that the board has adopted for 2013. Among others are increasing ridership by 4 percent over 2012, achieving $22 million in revenue development and opening the airport and Draper TRAX extensions and the Sugar House streetcar.

If UTA meets half its goals, executives get half the bonus pay available. If they meet all goals, they get all of it.

Last year, records show, the total payout was $750,000. The biggest bonuses — $25,000 each — went to UTA General Manager Michael Allegra (on top of his other salary and benefits of $307,604 that year) and UTA General Counsel Bruce Jones (beyond his other wages and benefits of $287,794).

John Inglish received a bonus of $22,700, on top of total compensation of $364,000, even though he held the mostly advisory job of chief executive officer created in a severance deal.

The bonus checks were cut even as UTA faced controversies over charging fares that are among the nation's highest, auditors questioned its high level of long-term debt and news reports compared executive salaries to some of the larger transit agencies in the country.