Transit-disoriented development: Legislative audit of UTA reveals serious conflicts of interest.
—by John deJong
One usually thinks of vast open spaces when one thinks of antelope. To my surprise, both met my eyes the first time I took TRAX to the end of the Red Line. No, not the U of U end of the line, the Daybreak station at 110th South and 51st West. There, prancing in the “brownfields” on the south bank of much-abused Bingham Creek, were half a dozen antelope. A half mile to the east, downtown Daybreak sat among the heavy metal-laced soils that bear testimony to one of Kennecott Copper’s failed attempts at keeping “externalities” external. Evaporation ponds for the toxic runoff from Kennecott’s open sores on the Oquirrhs left the soil so contaminated that Daybreak residents must sign an agreement not to grow vegetable gardens in it. To the west rose the Oquirrh Mountains and Kennecott’s Bingham Canyon mine, where a large cloud of dust from a mining blast rose high above the rim of the mine, giving lie to Kennecott’s claim that most of the air pollution produced in the pit stays within the pit.
I’ve always wondered why the Utah Transit Authority built a TRAX line out to Daybreak, when so many other deserving destinations beckoned. The answer, I suspect, lies in the shadowy machinations of UTA’s management and board of directors. Machinations of the sort revealed in a legislative audit of the Utah Transit Authority commissioned by Utah Senator John Valentine released in August. I have no proof that Kennecott Land got any special treatment. But why else would UTA build a light rail line to one of the most sparsely populated parts of the valley? Likely to boost the value of Kennecott Land’s way-the-hell-and-gone Daybreak development.
The TRAX station at Daybreak was probably the seed for UTA’s avid embrace of Transit Oriented Development. TOD is essentially a scheme to grow ridership by encouraging high-density development along TRAX lines by giving developers incentives in the form of tax breaks and sweetheart deals.
The biggest problem with Transit Oriented Development is that it tends to attract high-end (expensive) housing and retail which, in turn, attract the very type of people who are least likely to use mass transit. It’s sort of an “if you build it, you’re going to have to build even more before they come” situation. Two vast, practically empty, three-story parking structures built on the wrong side of the very busy Bangerter Highway across from metastic Jordan Landing Maul bear witness to the futility of such schemes. I’m betting these parking structure won’t be fully utilized before UTA’s current management and the developers are enjoying very comfortable retirements.
The audit details the exorbitant salaries granted to UTA management and the lucrative deals to developers. The highest UTA salary amounts to about 1% of UTA’s fare box collections. One developer got an advance of $10 million. That’s enough money to pay for two months of fare holidays for every UTA rider. What Transit Oriented Development really means is taxpayer-funded development.
The legislative audit, the third in four years, revealed serious conflicts of interest by members of the board, as well as a strangely tunnel-vision view of the future: a future full of big-ticket projects and attendant debt and maintenance burdens, but little money to pay the debt without cutting routes and service hours, or raising fares or sales taxes.
Part of the problem lies in the sources of UTA’s funding for its TRAX and FrontRunner projects. Federal mass transit matching funds encouraged UTA to incur high levels of debt to build projects that may not fit the needs of Utah’s commuters – Front Runner and the Sugar House Trolley have struggled to meet expected usage levels. The federal money has dried up and a large portion of current sales tax and fare revenues are now being used to repay current debt.
The biggest problem with UTA is the nature of its governing body. The board of directors is made up of 15 appointees/cronies from the cities and counties along the Wasatch Front, as well as appointees/cronies appointed by the president of the Utah Senate and the Speaker of the House. No member is directly responsible to voters or taxpayers. They don’t even seem to be responsible to riders. A recent challenge by the Utah Transit Riders Union for board members to use UTA for their transportation needs for seven days resulted in only three board members’ participation.
The Utah Transit Authority has no business being in the development business. Utah should let market forces drive development.
John R. deJong is production manager and associate publisher of CATALYST.