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Legislators approved allowing the Utah Transit Authority, which operates trains and buses, also to become more involved in real estate development — which has led to controversy in the past.

The House voted 66-2 to pass SB51, and the Senate concurred with amendments on a 26-0 vote. It now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert.

The bill will allow UTA to become involved in three more "transit-oriented developments," designed to build housing, retail stores and offices near transit stations to improve ridership. UTA may choose specific projects later.

The UTA received legislative permission five years ago to be involved in five earlier projects, which it chose to develop in Sandy, Clearfield, Sugar House, a TRAX station at 3900 South, and at the Jordan Valley TRAX Station in West Jordan.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the bill's sponsor, said in earlier debate the opportunity comes because when UTA purchased property to build or expand its FrontRunner and TRAX rail lines, it ended up with some large unused parcels near the tracks.

"If they sell the property, then the money goes to Washington, D.C., because the property was purchased with federal funds," Stevenson said. Instead, the agency hopes to partner with developers to build on that land

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, earlier complained that the bill "enhances the reach of a quasi-governmental entity … to co-develop and compete with private development."

Developments have sometimes been controversial.

One at the Jordan Valley TRAX station included building two large parking garages for $15.6 million. The structures have sat largely unused for years. One even has chains across its entrances. However, UTA says they will be needed for development planned there, and for projected future ridership.

In another controversy, developer Terry Diehl was pressured to resign from the UTA board when he sought possibly to be involved in such developments. Other board members waived a one-year ban on Diehl participating in such projects when he did step down.

That came after a legislative audit asserted Diehl broke the law by misusing official information about the location of a potential commuter rail station in Draper by buying rights to develop land around it. Diehl denied any wrongdoing.