Utah Transit Authority’s Lobbying is a Result of Federal Transit Policies

According to the Deseret News the Utah Transit Authority spends more on lobbying than any transit agency in the country. Utah, home to 2,800,000 people spends more on lobbying than does New York City’s transit agencies, which serve 16,000,000 people and than L.A.’s Metro, which serves more than 12,000,000 people. Utah’s spending also dwarfs Houston, Philadelphia and Denver. Utah spends more than Phoenix, Oakland, and San Jose combined.

Further according to Deseret News:

For its effort, the Utah Transit Authority has raked in more than $1 billion in federal funding — so much that state auditors say it might be left unable to maintain or operate its expanding light-rail and bus network on ordinary revenue.

And there is this gem from spokesman Gerry Carpenter:

UTA makes no apology for hiring lobbyists it says have produced $500 in federal construction and operating funds for every $1 of compensation.

“We believe that money we’ve spent on government relations work has been very much worth it,” UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City. “All you have to do is take a look at what we’ve managed to build here and continue to build.”

Sadly, high-profile lobbyists are very effective in obtaining federal funds:

UTA lobbyists come from a Who’s Who of top Capitol Hill persuaders and connected firms. They include James C. Barker, who was chief of staff for former Sen. Bob Bennett, and Anja Graves, president of CHG & Associates and a former high-ranking U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official. Barker and Graves declined comment.

Carpenter said UTA’s lobby team played a crucial role obtaining federal transportation funds, tracking legislation and coordinating with Utah’s congressional delegation.

As a result of the cash infusion the agency has overbuilt. Worse the agency lacks any long-term plan. The state’s auditors noted that the state has built so many track miles, it may not be able to maintain them all. A January auditing report faulted the authority for over-estimating revenue and understating expenses. The agency may have to cut service or force cities to raise taxes.

Most transit agencies have long-term plans. Planning allows for better use of capital, cheaper bonding, and more extensive coordination. While planning is in theory a federal requirement some transit agencies find ways to skirt the rules.

Utah’s transit operating style shows the underside of rail transit in the U.S. Federal laws encourage transit agencies to build, build, build. While the federal government provides generous subsidies to build lines, it provides little money to operate transit. These subsidies worsen the “front page news effect” of transit spending. Most transit agencies want to build their image. Shiny new trains generate more positive publicity than efficient existing service. Rail transit is no longer about serving the customers. It is now about making headlines so the transit agency can receive even more public money.

Changing current federal laws that encourage capital projects over maintenance should be a priority in the next long-term transportation bill. The federal government needs to stop giving big subsidies to build new rail lines. And all transit agencies need to take planning seriously. Agencies should have both short and long term plans that are realistic. The process should be detailed and fact-based. It should not be designed to serve environmental or political interests.

Finally, more analytics need to be applied to the process. Realistic transit plans, accurate cost-benefit analysis, and actual service needs should be the major priorities. Restrictions on lobbying might work. But until project funding becomes more analytical, lobbying restrictions are pointless. Skilled lobbyists will find a way to navigate the restrictions. It has already become an arms race to hire the best and brightest rail transit lobbyists. And as long as the federal government thumbs its nose on analytics and funding operations, local governments with the best lobbyists are going to continue to receive the most money.

Unfortunately, the current department of transportation is moving away from analytics. The latest proposal from the Obama Administration is to decrease cost-benefit analysis and increase politically motivated spending. The Department of Transportation asked for comments for its proposal and my colleague Bob Poole submitted an excellent response.

Utah has long bragged about its excellent research and its success in receiving federal money. While the state has successfully mined the federal trough, we now know it has little do with research or analytics.