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UTA official relieved new task force not on a ‘witch hunt’

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

FILE— Jerry Benson, president and CEO of the Utah Transit Authority, center, looks up as U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber announces a deal with UTA that means it will not be prosecuted in connection with an investigation of financial and ethical issues. The announcement was made during a press conference on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — After the first meeting Tuesday of a new legislative task force looking at the governance and funding of transportation entities, a Utah Transit Authority official expressed relief the group wasn’t on a "witch hunt."

UTA government relations director Matt Sibul said there had been concern the task force would target the agency, which is cooperating with a federal investigation into transit development projects as part of a nonprosecution agreement.

But he said UTA has been reassured that’s not the case by lawmakers and others on the task force. The committee was established by the 2017 Legislature through a bill that initially had called for restructuring UTA’s board and establishing a separate citizens advisory panel.

"We were more buoyed that this is not some sort of UTA witch hunt and this was going to be a really comprehensive, thoughtful process," Sibul said. "We feel pretty confident about that."

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the committee co-chairman, said he expects "a lot of discussion on UTA and how it’s governed" by the task force that will be "broader than just the investigation" led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah.

Harper, who sponsored the task force legislation, said he believes there will be a recommendation made about changing UTA’s 16-member board of trustees appointed by state and local officials.

"Everything is on the table. We’re going to take a look at everything to make sure it’s operating properly," Harper said, including the possibility of putting UTA under state control.

He said the task force will look at how various transportation entities are governed in other states at its next meeting on June 14, as well as take what could be several hours of public suggestions.

Sibul said UTA is "optimistic that they’ll come to the right answer" about oversight. "They’ll discover this, most transit boards across the country are appointed by local government because transit fundamentally was born out of serving cities."

The task force heard about three hours of presentations Tuesday from UTA, the Utah Department of Transportation, the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, the Wasatch Front Regional Council and other entities.

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Robert McKinley, UTA board chairman, told the task force members that the agency has made significant changes since a 2014 legislative audit raised concerns about transit-oriented development and executive compensation and bonuses.

McKinley said the agency’s difficulties came during a time of rapid expansion and, "if there’s a silver lining to all of this," has since become a "much different, much improved organization."

Still, the board chairman said, "I acknowledge that we have a long road ahead of us to rebuild public trust and support. We’re committed to do that" through being good stewards of public funds and conducting business in an open and ethical manner.

Sibul pointed out during the presentation Utah is one of only three states that doesn’t provide ongoing state funding for transit. Federal funds make up 16 percent of the agency’s revenues.

But nearly two-thirds of UTA’s revenues come from local option sales taxes, which now range from $0.004 cents in Tooele County to $0.0068 cents in Salt Lake County, even though regional transportation plans count on collecting 1 cent.

Task force members asked UTA to bring back details of the transit portion of the long-range regional plans, including the projected costs and what new money would be needed.

"We’re tapped out," Sibul said after the meeting. "We can’t afford to do anything new without new resources."

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