Utah politicians are proud of all of the light-rail and commuter-rail lines that the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) has managed to build. But to do so, UTA has built up $2 billion of debt, and 30 percent of its revenues must go to service that debt. This greatly reduces its ability to improve transit to serve a growing area.
Now the state legislature has found a solution to this problem: Abolish UTA. Or, to be precise, replace it with a new entity that has a new governing body, new taxing authority, and restrictions on how it can spend its money.
Unfortunately, merely replacing UTA’s fifteen-member board with a three-member commission won’t solve the real problem: the agency has always gone for the high-cost solution to any problem. For example, as of the end of 2016 it has spend $2 billion (in 2016 dollars) constructing a commuter-rail system that barely carries 8,000 roundtrips per weekday. This is almost unimaginably wasteful, except it just a matter of course for the transit industry.
The legislature’s solution, other than restructuring the board, is to to throw more money at the agency. The proposed bill would raise auto registration fees by $28 a year and dedicate the money to transit. It would also give Utah county commissions the power to increase sales taxes without a vote of the people — a tax increase that voters rejected in 2015. Other tax proposals were abandoned when they were opposed by powerful special interest groups, but unfortunately voters in general don’t seem to have a powerful lobby working on their behalf.
Giving Utah transit more money is the wrong direction. Transit carries a miniscule 1.3 percent of motorized travel in the Ogden-Salt Lake-Provo-Orem region served by UTA. Utah transit ridership fell in both 2016 and 2017. Ridership per capita has been falling for even longer. Given the growth of ride hailing and continued low gas prices, there’s no reason to think this will turn around soon.
It is probably true that UTA’s fifteen-member board has lost control of the agency. But replacing it with a three-member commission, paid full time, is merely rearranging the deck chairs. Given access to new funds, this commission will become as much advocates for high-cost, low-benefit transit systems as the current board. If the legislature doesn’t make hard decisions this year, it will only have to make more difficult decisions in the near future, such as how to pay off a $2 billion debt when most riders have abandoned transit for driverless ride hailing.