‘Back to Basics’ Focus on People, Money and Service Will Guide UTA Through 2017 and Beyond
New President and CEO Jerry Benson Outlines Agency’s Vision in First “State of UTA” Address
SALT LAKE CITY, Nov. 16, 2016 – A “back to basics” focus on the core drivers of the Utah Transit Authority’s mission – people, money and service – will be the main theme for the state’s largest transit agency for the coming year and into the future, President and CEO Jerry Benson reported to the Board of Trustees in his inaugural “State of UTA” address.
"While serving as interim CEO for the past year, I’ve taken the opportunity to listen to and learn what our customers, partners, employees and other stakeholders have to say about UTA,” Benson said. “What I heard was that we provide a needed and valued service, but that we have gaps to fill.
“Filling those gaps, though, will create great opportunities,” Benson noted. “We can make the system work better for more people. We can improve how we interact with and serve our customers. We can do more to help encourage transit-friendly communities. We can find ways to stretch our resources even further and demonstrate our dedication and stewardship.”
The successful completion of major capital projects, as well as growing and shifting needs of customers, means that UTA must adapt to meet new challenges, Benson pointed out. “It’s a new era in UTA’s history. We have to tell the ‘brutal truth’ about what’s working and what needs fixing. We must align our employees, our financial resources, and our service to provide our customers with the best, most-responsive transit system possible.”
“Our employees are the heart and soul of UTA,” Benson said. “They are professional, dedicated, proud and, sometimes, a bit frustrated, too. Over the next year, we will work to align our management teams and systems to better support the people who serve our customers.”
Improving support, training and professional development opportunities for employees will be one focus of a newly organized human capital management department, led by UTA’s first-ever Chief People Officer. Announced earlier this month, Benson’s restructured and streamlined leadership team emphasizes investing in employees, improving transit service and customer relations, and building public trust.
The executive reorganization and direction outlined in his State of UTA address are, in part, designed to allow Benson to spend more time reaching out to and listening to people – the transit system’s customers, taxpayers, employees and stakeholders.
UTA’s “people” initiatives for 2017 also include implementing ways to provide more and better information about the agency, whether it’s public reporting of key performance measures, online posting of Board of Trustees briefings, or live video-streaming of Board meetings.
“Working more closely with the communities we serve and with other government agencies, non-profit groups and others, will also be emphasized as we move forward,” said Benson. “We may not have the resources to take the lead on some issues, as we have in the past with building capital projects, but we have significant expertise to offer to help address community needs through smart partnerships.”
2017 “People” Initiatives:
- Reorganize personnel functions under “Chief People Officer”.
- Strengthen employees’ professional development opportunities.
- Increase public engagement opportunities.
- Provide more and better information.
- Live-stream Board meetings.
- Build partnerships with communities, stakeholders.
“National data show that UTA provides a good value for taxpayers’ money and customers’ fares, but limited revenue means we must adapt to an even more-constrained financial future,” Benson said. The long-range transportation plan, developed by cities and counties for the metro region, anticipates that most counties in the UTA service area will be funding transit with a 1.05 percent sales tax by 2017. But, even with recent passage of Prop 1 in three counties, today’s transit tax rates are much lower, ranging from 0.40 percent to 0.69 percent.
Again noting the successful completion of the organization’s ambitious FrontLines 2015 rail expansion program, Benson reminded the Board that UTA will need to borrow millions of dollars twice more in the next few years to fulfill its financial obligations from building the rail network.
While this will add to the agency’s debt service and further limit financial resources in coming years, Benson said he will implement more rigor in how UTA manages its budget to help lessen the impact. New budgeting practices will reduce or eliminate previous approaches of borrowing funds for routine activities, leasing certain types of equipment, and dipping into “rainy day” funds to cover operating expenses.
One bright financial note is the additional sales tax revenue approved in late 2015 by voters in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties, which will add several new bus routes and extend service hours during peak hours and on weekends.
Benson said that, even with revenue growth in some of the counties UTA serves, the agency overall is faced with very limited financial resources for the future. Among other things, that means being careful and transparent about jumping to support new commitments with communities and partners. “Without new revenue sources, UTA can no longer afford to be the piggybank that provides start-up funds for new projects,” Benson said. “We’ll continue being an engaged partner and helping to identify resources, but we simply can’t be the first to open our checkbook.”
Responsible financial stewardship also means taking care of the agency’s assets. “Keeping our system in a state of good repair must be an ongoing priority for UTA,” Benson said. “To that end, we’ll be replacing 59 buses in 2017 and doing some much-needed maintenance on platforms and other parts of the TRAX network. This is the kind of nuts-and-bolts work that people take for granted, but that keeps the buses and trains rolling to get them to work and school on time.”
2017 “Money” Initiatives:
- Revamp budget practices: limit borrowing, leasing and dipping into reserves.
- Manage current debt prudently.
- Scour the budget for opportunities to reduce costs.
- Carefully and transparently evaluate budget implications of potential new commitments.
- Set expectation with partners that UTA can’t bankroll new projects without new funding.
- Maintain the network in a state of good repair: replace buses, overhaul elements of TRAX.
“Our customers tell us that UTA offers high-quality service, and that they want more of it – more frequency, more coverage, more direct routes, faster buses and trains, service earlier and later in the day, and more service on Sundays,” Benson said. “Meeting those expectations is a challenge, but we can and will do more to improve our service.”
As previously noted, enhancements to bus service are in the process of being implemented in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties, where voters approved increasing UTA’s sales tax levy in 2015.
While additional ballot initiatives may one day increase revenues in other counties, Benson said UTA is not banking on them and will focus instead on assessing customer needs and usage patterns to revamp routes and schedules. He cited upcoming changes to UTA ski-bus service to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon resorts that will provide more-frequent service as an example.
Similar assessments of other routes and schedules throughout the system will be made to determine ways to meet customers’ expectations and improve their experiences when riding on UTA buses and trains.
During 2017, UTA will also improve customer service by making the agency’s website more informative and easier to use, replacing confusing and outdated signage and installing faster, more-reliable Wi-Fi on FrontRunner.
Benson noted that UTA will also continue to explore innovative ways to partner with third parties, such as ride-hailing and ride-sharing companies, with an eye on creating a more convenient, door-to-door experience for customers. “The internet has changed so many aspects of our lives, including transportation, and we must adapt, evolve and embrace new opportunities and new ways of doing things if we are to grow and thrive into the future,” Benson said.
2017 “Service” Initiatives:
- Implement Proposition 1 service improvements in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties.
- Assess and adjust key routes and schedules to improve service.
- Update website to provide more and better information.
- Install faster, more-reliable Wi-Fi on FrontRunner trains.
- Explore innovative partnerships that expand and enhance UTA service and improve customer convenience and experience.
- Simplify fare system and improve reliability of ticket vending machines.