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The day after the Utah Transit Authority began seeking a 66 percent increase in its share of sales taxes, four top UTA officials including the same person who asked legislators for that increase jetted off to Switzerland to look at mountain transportation systems.
They are spending $1,600 each for round-trip airfare and $200 each per night on hotel rooms for five nights, plus food and other incidentals, the UTA acknowledged in response to Tribune inquiries. They also took six legislators and a lobbyist with them but UTA said they are paying their own way.
"Their timing is awful," said Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City, who on Wednesday told UTA officials they should cut big salaries, bonuses and travel before asking for any more money.
When told about the trip that left the next day, she said, "I question their judgment on spending this kind of money on top of the firestorm that's going on concerning bonuses and the cutting of services and the debt they are in. I think they are using very poor judgment in taking this kind of excursion."
UTA spokesman Remi Barron said UTA officials on the trip are general counsel Bruce Jones who asked legislators Wednesday to consider helping with the increase board member Chris Bleak, chief development officer Steve Meyer and senior adviser David Kallas.
Accompanying them but paying their own way are state Reps. Greg Hughes (who is also chairman of the UTA board), Brad Dee, Don Ipson, Brad Last and Johnny Anderson and Sen. Evan Vickers. Jeff Hartley,who is registered as a lobbyist for UTA, is also on the trip.
"Switzerland has some of the best examples of modern, specialized rail systems that work best in steep terrain and winter environments similar to the Wasatch Front. These systems and technologies do not exist in the United States," Barron said, explaining the trip.
He noted that UTA is among many local governments working as partners to explore and develop transportation solutions for Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. "This is a critical time for the project, as the environmental impact study phase is about to begin," Barron said.
Dee, the Republican House majority leader, said by telephone from Switzerland on Friday that he paid his way because he would like to find a way to "move three or four times the number of people with about one-quarter the number of vehicles" now seen in the canyons. "When it's on my own dime, I think that's fine."
He said he had been awake for about 24 hours traveling and touring because upon arrival, the group immediately began to look at "a myriad of railroad systems. ... We've seen two or three cog railroads and some tram systems that connect ski resorts."
International travel has been among controversies UTA has faced recently. Last year, the Tribune reported that UTA had spent $600,000 in a year and half on travel. For example, former CEO John Inglish had traveled to Belgium, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Spain (twice), Switzerland, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and 17 U.S. cities. He averaged 1.6 trips a month.
Hughes traveled for UTA to Switzerland, Hong Kong, Australia, San Antonio, Sacramento, Portland (three times) and Washington, D.C.
He told a UTA board meeting last August how much he benefitted from an earlier trip to Switzerland and how much it helped to see operations first-hand.
"If I were [the late billionaire] Howard Hughes, or if I was related to Howard Hughes, I would pay for every one of my colleagues in the Legislature to go and see this," he said. Hughes added that without seeing it, "I don't think you can appreciate it."
The latest trip comes after Jones told legislators Wednesday that UTA will soon need a 66 percent increase in its share of sales taxes to fund service improvements that it figures the growing Wasatch Front will need over the next 30 years.
That would raise transit sales tax in areas served by UTA from an average of six-tenths of a cent up to a full penny for every $1 spent. But the increase would be more in some areas than others because transit sales tax now varies among counties. It is 0.69 of a cent in Salt Lake County, for example, 0.55 in Davis and Weber counties and 0.53 in Utah County.
Sales tax currently provides two-thirds of all UTA revenue.
Jones said that for such an increase, the Legislature would need to raise current caps on sales tax, local officials would need to agree to put the issue on the ballot in local counties and voters would need to approve it.
Fisher told Jones that could be a tough sell amid recent news stories about big bonuses and salaries. UTA executives split $750,000 for bonuses last year for meeting goals that critics said were too easy. As an example of bonuses, Jones received $25,000 beyond his other wages and benefits of $287,794.
Three days after a Tribune story appeared about the bonuses, UTA officials asked its board to lower goals this year which would make it easier for them to collect bonuses again. The board rejected that request.