Rep. Johnny Anderson: A Transportation Champion

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

By LaVarr Webb

When Johnny Anderson was growing up in Taylorsville, he was interested in current events and politics, but he didn’t have personal political ambitions. As he began raising his own family in Taylorsville and starting a business, he had no expectation of running for office.

But Anderson ended up getting involved in politics in a natural way, starting at the grassroots level out of concern for his business and industry. From those beginnings, Anderson was appointed to the Utah House in 2009 and, even though he’s a relative newcomer, now serves as chair of the House Transportation Committee.

Anderson built a child care business with his mother, first opening a home care center in Taylorsville, then in 1992 opening a child care center in West Valley City. The business has grown to eight locations, making it the largest child care operation in the state.

Child care centers are heavily regulated, so Anderson became involved in the industry association. “I enjoyed networking and I found we all faced a lot of the same challenges as small businesses.” He was elected vice-chair of government relations. “I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I started dealing with the licensing bureau and state laws dealing with our industry, and I found governmental processes to be quite intriguing.”

Anderson, who calls himself a moderate Republican, came to understand the importance of the Legislature and that his industry needed to develop relationships, educate lawmakers, and increase its influence. “We encouraged people to get involved in the caucus process and get elected as delegates to provide more awareness of our industry,” he said. “I was elected as a state delegate and I supported the Huntsman-Herbert ticket, especially because Gary Herbert was a member of our association at the time. He and his wife had a child care business.”

Anderson also was selected to serve on the board of the national child care association and became involved in federal-level government relations. “I found it very interesting and enjoyed getting to know how government works and developing relationships with elected leaders.”

At the time, Kory Holdaway represented District 34 in the Taylorsville area of western Salt Lake County. “I liked Kory’s approach to politics and I had a good relationship with him. He would listen to our issues and was dedicated to supporting education and young people.”

When Holdaway resigned to take a job with the Utah Education Association, he contacted Anderson and encouraged him to run for the job. “I first said no, but after talking to my family and considering whether I could make a contribution, I agreed to run.”

Anderson had served as legislative district chair in District 34, so he knew most of the delegates. Five other candidates also sought the position, but he worked hard, won the support of delegates, was appointed by the governor in 2009, and was elected in his own right in 2010. “I’ve had four sessions so far. My industry involvement was really helpful, and veteran legislators have taken me under their wing. It has been a great experience.”

The district Anderson represents is a swing district, and Anderson will seek re-election in 2014. He usually has tough races and he believes his contest in the No. 1 legislative target for Democrats.

Anderson said he likes House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart’s collaborative leadership style, and he has supported her since arriving at the Legislature. He was appointed to serve on the Transportation and Education committees, and after a few sessions Lockhart appointed him vice-chair of Transportation, with veteran Rep. Brad Daw as chair. “I really enjoyed working with Brad,” Anderson said. “Then when he moved on I was in the top half in committee seniority, so Speaker Lockhart asked me to be chair.”

Anderson has immersed himself in transportation issues, and has become an advocate for excellent transportation infrastructure. “Good mobility, which results from adequate transportation investment, is absolutely key to a strong economy. Even in the child care business, we have to care about transportation because we have a fleet of buses that need to get around the valley,” he said. “Every business owes its success, in part, because visionary leaders have built great infrastructure. Mobility is one of Utah’s key assets, and we need to keep the momentum moving forward. Building transportation infrastructure is one of the genuinely proper roles of government.”

Anderson said Utah has world-class transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations, and he appreciates their work in developing the 2040 Unified Transportation Plan, which maps out the state’s major transportation projects and funding needs over the next 30 years. “The 2040 Plan is a great example of local governments, transportation agencies and the business community working collaboratively to ensure good mobility,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in many places in the country, and it’s a real advantage for Utah.”

Anderson’s interim Transportation Committee, which he co-chairs with Sen. Kevin Van Tassell of Vernal, spent the summer and fall focusing on the state’s transportation needs and educating committee members, other legislators, and stakeholder groups. Anderson was hopeful that the Legislature would look at some form of gasoline tax boost in the upcoming 2014 session that begins in late January.

But it’s looking unlikely that the governor and Legislature will support any sort of tax increase in the next session, so Anderson wants to spend the next interim period reviewing funding proposals with the hope of bringing a package to the 2015 session.

Asked if transportation funding competes with education, Anderson said the Legislature needs to fund both of them adequately. In general, they don’t compete directly, because education at the state level is funded mostly through the income tax and transportation through user fees like the gas tax, and also the sales tax. Also, some transportation taxes, like the sales tax that supports public transit, are approved directly by the people through ballot measures.

Anderson said he recognizes that the portion of the gas tax that is distributed to local governments is no longer sufficient to meet their needs. The gas tax has lost nearly 40 percent of its purchasing power since it was last raised in 1997. “We do need to let local governments solve their problems by providing some options,” he said.

The lawmaker also believes public transit is increasingly important in the state’s transportation mix, especially with rapid growth, air quality problems, and congested highways. “In the Salt Lake Valley, I understand the vision of transit-oriented development, with mixed use population centers connected by public transit. We see the demographics changing, people wanting to live in higher-density, mixed-use developments. Not everyone wants a half-acre with a lot of lawn in the suburbs.”

Anderson also believes legislators and citizens need to be more realistic and honest about what’s happening at the federal level. “The federal government is broke. Federal transportation funds aren’t going to immediately dry up, but we can’t count on large federal outlays on into the future.”

For Utah to be self-sufficient, taxes have to go up, Anderson said. “We’ve been kicking the can down the road for too long. Too much has been built on borrowed money. We need solid, secure funding.”

Despite the challenges, Anderson is optimistic about Utah’s long-term prospects. “We are sensible here. We work together and we have good leaders at all levels of government. We solve problems.” He said he believes Utah is ahead of most states in constructing and preserving transportation infrastructure, and will continue in that leadership position on into the future.

Transportation investment key to economic growth

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

The Salt Lake Chamber has a long history of supporting the Utah economy by championing transportation investment. We supported Prop. 3 that funded the expansion of mass transit and road along the Wasatch Front and eventually became 70 miles of new rail line that was completed two years ahead of schedule and more than $300 million under budget.

Today, the Chamber, through the Utah Transportation Coalition, is leading the charge to fully fund the 2040 Unified Transportation Plan. Utah is already on pace to invest some $43 billion in roads, rails and trails over the next 30 years, but maximizing our return on that investment will require investing an additional $11 billion. You can see the study here.

Recently, the U.S. Chamber produced a video to help better understand the importance of investment in our transportation infrastructure.

SLC & UTA Encourage Residents to Help Improve Air Quality With New Transit Program

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Editor’s note: This article was written by EDCUtah and was originally published on the Utah Pulse

Just in time for inversion season, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Utah Transit Authority General Manager Michael Allegra have announced a partnership offering city residents discounted passes to make riding transit more affordable.

It’s a move that would help improve air quality by minimizing the number of regular car trips.

That’s good news for Wasatch Front air quality, as vehicle emissions account for more than half of the air pollution that gets trapped along the Wasatch Front during our winter inversions. Under the pilot plan, which begins in early 2014 and is modeled after bulk pass programs offered by UTA, Salt Lake City residents will be eligible to purchase one-year transit passes for $360. That translates to $30 a month, giving residents the option to ride UTA buses, TRAX or FrontRunner rather than drive. The city is paying $150,000 to administer the program.

UTA and Salt Lake City are banking on at least 6,000 residents purchasing the passes. But how much of a difference will it make in our air quality? With 6,000 or more participants, the program has the potential to eliminate about 10,290,000 miles per year and an estimated 30 tons of pollutants from the air.

The key to the program, says UTA Senior Media Relations Specialist Remi Barron, is for 6,000 or more Salt Lake City residents to sign up. “We are optimistic the program will work out fine and continue on, but it is a one-year pilot program right now,” he notes. “UTA is interested to see how popular the program is and how the numbers work out. This is all stuff that hasn’t been done before.”

Offering incentivized use of mass transit to improve air quality is a novel idea UTA hopes other cities will be interested in as well. Studies show that by having transit passes in their pockets, residents are more likely to utilize mass transit. According to data from Salt Lake City, residents could break even on their transit investments by replacing car travel with six round trips per month on UTA transit systems. There would be no limit on the number of passes purchased per household, and residents can pay for the passes all at once or in installments of $30 per month, charged to their utility bills. (Ski bus, Park City Connect and paratransit services will be excluded from the pass.)

If the program receives the required support from city residents, it could become a sustainable piece of Salt Lake City’s efforts to improve the air quality. “We hope everyone will jump on board and take advantage of this pass,” Becker said during the announcement last month.

“UTA’s goal is to get a pass in everyone’s pocket,” added Allegra. “This is an innovative approach where a city is investing its resources to make transit passes available to all its residents. If the one-year pilot is successful, UTA hopes to refine and expand the program to other communities.”

EDCUtah President and CEO Jeff Edwards lauds the partnership as another example of Utahns working together. “Poor air quality can be a turn-off for economic development. It also diminishes our quality of life and drives up our health care costs,” he says. “We appreciate Salt Lake City leaders for being innovative in addressing our air quality challenges and making UTA’s transit systems an affordable alternative for city residents.”

Salt Lake Chamber Executive Vice President Marty Carpenter calls the residential transit program a win-win for air quality and city residents. “We’ve made wise investments in our transportation infrastructure, and that’s helped us in a number of ways,” he says. “Innovative programs like this will help more people see the benefit of our investment and help improve our air quality.”

Barron notes that UTA is also holding an open house on Dec. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the North Salt Lake City Hall to get ideas and opinions from Davis County residents on the future of transit between south Davis County and downtown Salt Lake City.

UTA is partnering with Bountiful City, City of North Salt Lake, Salt Lake City, Davis County and the Wasatch Front Regional Council to conduct an Alternatives Analysis (AA) study to better understand current and future transit needs of people living in southern Davis County through the planning horizon of 2040.

Mountain Transportation – The Vision

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Photo credit: Jungfrau Railways

Editor’s note: This post was authored by LaVarr Webb on May 3, 2013 and originally published on

We love our Wasatch Front mountains. Their value is incalculable. The challenge is to keep from loving them to death. Almost instant access to gorgeous alpine vistas and recreation by a couple million people makes the Wasatch Front unique in America — but also makes our mountains susceptible to overuse and degradation. How do we keep the mountains pristine and preserve them for future generations while continuing to enjoy them?

Part of the answer is clean and innovative mountain transportation. A large share of mountain impact comes from automobiles and associated parking lots, emissions and development.

A great Mountain Transportation system would greatly reduce human impact in the canyons, make Utah exclusive in the country, bolster the ski and tourism industry, provide development opportunities in the valley, and better serve both local residents and out-of-state skiers.

Most Cottonwood Canyons skiers, at one time or another, have gotten stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on snowy, narrow, slick canyon roads, driving either to or from the ski resorts. It’s white-knuckle, scary driving, and parking is often hard to find.

Imagine hopping on public transit anywhere across the Wasatch Front, socializing with friends, or working on a WiFi-connected laptop, and be skiing at your favorite resort (or hiking or fishing in the summer) within an hour, no matter the weather conditions.

Imagine you’re an avid skier from Los Angeles. Imagine that you could fly to Salt Lake City in little more than an hour, hop on a train at the airport, with your luggage and ski equipment, and ride public transit to ski lifts — without having to rent a car, negotiate snowy roads, or worry about safety.

Mountain Transportation would be a game-changer for Utah. Our ski resorts would be distinctive in the nation, on par with exclusive European resorts that are accessible by train. It would give Utah’s ski industry an enormous competitive advantage, especially against Denver, where it takes half a day to get from the airport to the ski resorts. This opportunity is significant enough that the Salt Lake Chamber’s Mobility Coalition, of which I am a member, has made Mountain Transportation a priority issue.

But this is about much more than just transportation, skiing and economic development. It’s also about saving our canyons, preventing degradation and preserving our quality of life. Good Mountain Transportation would support a diversity of recreation uses, minimize noise, preserve viewshed, improve air quality and reduce wildlife habitat impacts. These canyons are important watershed, supplying drinking water to more than half a million people.

The Wasatch Front population will increase by more than 1 million people over the next 30 years. Planners say current growth in vehicle traffic in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons is simply unsustainable. Travel restrictions will need to be imposed or fees charged to enter the canyons. Weekend daily vehicle trips are expected to increase to 16,000 in Little Cottonwood Canyon alone by 2030.

Some of the benefits of an innovative Mountain Transportation system include:

· Future development (hotels, restaurants, etc.) could be placed mostly in the valley cities, in some cases at the mouth of canyons, with easy transit access to the canyons.

· The number of people enjoying the resorts could be increased without increasing parking lots, hotels, or development in the canyons.

· Safety would be dramatically improved. People are frightened of driving the narrow roads. In heavy snow, traffic can be bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go. It’s white-knuckle driving.

· A great Mountain Transportation system would improve Utah’s position in the pursuit of future Winter Games.

· The region would be positioned as a year-round world-class recreation/resort destination.

· Patrons could better enjoy the canyons, and mountain recreation, while more easily taking advantage of downtown dining, entertainment and hotels.

· Real estate and land values at the mouths of the canyons would improve.

· Reliable, inexpensive, transportation would be available for resort workers, who wouldn’t need to live at the expensive resorts.

Clearly, Mountain Transportation will be expensive. But sharing the costs among all the interested industries, businesses and entities make it possible. Consider the many possible participants: cities, counties, airport, developers, ski industry, Forest Service, environmental groups, commuters, Utah Transit Authority, UDOT, and recreation enthusiasts.

It is possible that Mountain Transportation would be approached as a public/private partnership, with private stakeholders taking a share of risk, providing at least part of the financing, and perhaps even operating the system.

Obviously, myriad questions remain to be answered. But that’s why all the stakeholders should engage in a discussion now, and begin environmental, engineering, and financing studies to see what’s feasible and what the scope should be. We need to start now, because in 10 years the canyons will be in trouble and/or major traffic restrictions will be imposed.

We love our mountains. Let’s find ways to continue to enjoy them without loving them to death.

Streetcar line to boost Sugar House economy

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

The new UTA Street Car system is in the testing phase in Sugar House and businesses located near the line are anxious to benefit from increased foot traffic.

Last night, KSL’s Andrew Adams looked at the anticipated impact of the street car line, which is scheduled to open Dec. 8.

You can find KSL’s story here.

Chamber president reaffirms commitment to transportation

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

To strengthen the state economy, Utah must find a way to bridge the funding gap in the Unified 2040 Transportation Plan. That was the message delivered by Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie to the Legislative Transportation Interim Committee today.

“Utah really does need disciplined investments to address the critical transportation issues our state is and will face as our community continues to grow,” said Beattie.

Beattie says Utah finds itself with an “amazing document,” the 2040 Unified Transportation Plan. He says the key word is “unified.”

“The Salt Lake Chamber believes any funding proposal should recognize this disciplined and collaborative approach embodied by this unified plan,” said Beattie. “This unified funding approach should take into account the future needs of not only local roads, but also our state roads and transit needs.”

The Salt Lake Chamber’s Utah Transportation Coalition is working with key stakeholders to develop a five-year funding proposal that would balance the disciplined investments that our local roads and highways desperately need, provide for the capacity to accommodate future growth and bolster the amazing investments our community has already made in transit.

“We believe this funding must be transparent and stable, keep up with inflation, and be borne largely by users,” said Beattie.

Beattie re-emphasized that the Utah Transportation Coalition looks forward to working with the Legislature to ensure that we continue to make the disciplined and balanced investments in our transportation system to enable our community to prosper, economy to grow and to improve the quality of life for every Utahn.

Transportation investment could add 183,000 jobs to Utah’s economy

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Editor’s note: This article was written by Gaylen Webb for EDCUtah and appeared in the Utah Pulse on Oct. 8, 2013. 

A recent study by the Economic Development Research Group of Boston shows Utah could nearly double its return of investment on the state’s transportation infrastructure by 2040. Simply put: for every dollar spent on transportation infrastructure, the state could turn around an ROI of $1.94.

“Anytime you can trade someone $1 for $1.94, you make that trade,” says Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lane Beattie.

According to the study, which can be read here, if state and local governments and transportation agencies fully implement Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan 2011-2040, the result will be a dramatic and positive economic impact over the next three decades. In fact, if the Unified Transportation plan is fully funded, the state would see a return on investment of nearly 183,000 new jobs created in Utah by 2040. Those would include 55,000 construction jobs and more than 91,000 other jobs created by improvements in transportation performance. Another 17,000 jobs would be created by enhanced access to markets for Utah firms, and more than 19,000 jobs would be added by new businesses attracted to Utah because of improved transportation conditions.

“If you look at the sheer numbers, the outcome is pretty impressive,” says Marty Carpenter, executive vice president of communication at the Salt Lake Chamber. The study projects the state would experience:

  • $130.5 billion in additional household income
  • $183.6 billion in additional gross domestic product
  • $22 billion in additional tax revenues from economic growth

As Beattie points out, Utah would receive an estimated return on investment of $1.94 in non-construction GDP gain per $1 invested in transportation infrastructure. That is based on the analysis of private sector transportation costs that can be saved if the Unified Transportation Plan is implemented as envisioned. The comprehensive plan, which can be read here, has four strategic goals: preserve infrastructure, optimize mobility, improve safety and strengthen the economy.

“The Utah Unified Transportation Plan is really quite detailed,” says Carpenter. “It covers everything from smaller roads, bike paths and big rail projects–all of the things we should look at doing in order to have the transportation infrastructure that will support the population growth we can expect.”

The Economic Development Research Group’s study was commissioned by the Utah Transportation Coalition, a group started by the Salt Lake Chamber in 2012 to bring transportation stakeholders together with businesses that recognize the impact transportation infrastructure will have on their long-term ability to succeed. Carpenter says the coalition is working with elected officials, stakeholders and other businesses to help them understand there is a gap between the funds the state has committed for transportation infrastructure, recognize what is needed to fully fund the Unified Transportation Plan and to help them find ways to close the gap.

Utah currently has about $43 billion committed toward transportation infrastructure between now and 2040, when the Unified Transportation Plan would be finished. But, he says, a total of $54.7 billion is needed to create a transportation system that will allow Utah’s economy to reach its full potential.

“Our current funding leaves us a shortfall of $11.3 billion–the gap between what we need to have to maximize our return on investment and what we actually have planned,” he explains. “Based upon the study, if we can come up with that additional $11.3 billion, we get an extra 182,000-plus jobs created by 2040. Seventy percent of those jobs are attributable to improved transportation performance, while 30 percent are from construction spending.”

This isn’t the first time the Salt Lake Chamber has taken an active role in pushing for funds to improve Utah’s transportation infrastructure. The Chamber played a critical role in the passage of Proposition 3 in 2006, which accelerated the construction of the Mountain View Corridor and helped fund five TRAX light rail projects in Salt Lake County and the FrontRunner commuter rail project from the Intermodal Hub in Salt Lake into Utah County.

“As a business association, we recognize that the long-term economic strength of our state depends on our ability to maintain and continue to build a strong transportation infrastructure, particularly because we know our population is going to double in the next 30 years,” says Carpenter. “With that knowledge comes the responsibility to speak today about what the congestion could look like and what we can do about it. We must work today to make sure gridlock doesn’t happen.”

Utah is currently in a great position, he adds, because the state has invested well over the past decade and is ahead of the curve on transportation. Over the past 10 years strong partnerships have been forged, along with a strong understanding of the importance of transportation infrastructure. Nonetheless, without adequately funding the Unified Transportation Plan, Utahns can expect increased transportation stress and continued air quality problems as the population grows to an anticipated 3 million people along the Wasatch Front over the next three decades.

While adding more roads is only part of the transportation plan, Carpenter says it would be non sequitur for some people to connect additional roads with improved air quality. “You are going to have people in cars regardless,” he says. “Giving them more transportation options is essential, but so is keeping them from sitting in congestion. Cars sitting on over-crowded roads are still burning fuel and putting emissions in the air. If we keep cars and trucks moving as efficiently as possible, it saves commuters and businesses money and reduces the amount of emissions they put in the air.”

Carpenter says federal funding is declining as they work toward the $11.3 billion shortfall in transportation investment, but the study lays out a variety of alternative concepts. The Transportation Coalition, he notes, hasn’t settled on one particular mechanism. “We are more interested in showing the Legislature a number of options they have and to give our best counsel as to what those options will entail,” he says. “Ultimately, I am sure as that field of options narrows we’ll take a position, but at this point that is preliminary. It is more important to help lawmakers understand the issues we face, see what their options are, and present them with good information about the path forward.”

Chamber applauds SLC-UTA programs to increase transit ridership

Friday, October 4th, 2013

This morning, the Salt Lake Chamber took part in a news conference to announce a program to help Salt Lake City residents take advantage of transit opportunities. The program would increase the number of riders, provide reduced fare and have an impact in several important policy areas to strengthen our economy.

Chamber Executive Vice President Marty Carpenter told reporters there are two things the business community appreciates: when a great deal comes together so everyone wins and maximization of the return on an investment.

He says this agreement between SLC and UTA will further increase already strong ridership and will help more SLC residents utilize a world class transportation system.

As for maximizing ROI… that usually makes people think of the bottom line dollar amount–the profit. But that’s not always the case. The return on our investment in our transit system is greater than that, touching transportation (relieving pressure on our roads), energy (reducing our energy consumption), air quality (fewer tailpipes means cleaner air), economic development (preserving our natural beauty that attracts top talent and businesses from around the country) all while improving our health, to help contain the cost of health care.

It’s a winning deal for everyone.

The Chamber applauds Mayor Becker for his leadership and UTA for constantly finding new ways to run the nation’s best transit authority.

Here’s the official news release from the Mayor’s Office.

Mayor Proposes New Residential Transit Pass Program to Address Air Quality

SALT LAKE CITY – On Friday, Oct. 4, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker announced a fresh solution to help improve air quality – a new type of transit pass that may soon be available to Salt Lake City residents, helping minimize the number of car trips that contribute to poor air conditions.

Mayor Becker proposed an innovative partnership with Utah Transit Authority to offer the new transit pass option. Under the plan, Salt Lake City residents would be eligible to purchase a one-year transit pass for $360. Residents could pay all at once or in 12 installments of $30/month, charged to their utility bill. This would be the first pass to be offered to municipal residents as a group, although the plan is modeled after similar bulk pass programs offered by UTA.

The purpose of the pass is to incentivize use of mass transit and improve air quality. Studies show residents are more likely to utilize mass transit when they are pass-holders. The pass would be good for UTA’s regular bus, TRAX and FrontRunner services. In just six round trips per month, residents could break even on their investment. There would be no limit on the number of passes purchased per household.

Mayor Becker was joined for the announcement by Councilman Stan Penfold, the City Council sponsor of the proposal; Utah Transit Authority General Manager Michael Allegra; Breathe Utah Executive Director Erin Mendenhall; Salt Lake Chamber Executive Vice President of Communication Marty Carpenter and other community leaders. Attendees lauded the program as an important step toward creating sustainable solutions to Salt Lake City’s air quality challenges.

The residential pass is proposed as a one-year pilot program and, if approved by the City Council, is expected to launch in early 2014. UTA expects that up to 6,000 passes could be sold.


Bumpy road ahead for federal transportation dollars

Friday, September 27th, 2013

The strength of any economy is directly tied to its ability to move goods and people. Over the past several years, we’ve seen a big investment in transportation infrastructure boost the Utah economy.

Today the Salt Lake Chamber’s Utah Transportation Coalition is working to fully fund the 2040 Unified Transportation plan. But that effort comes at a time when the federal highway funds are declining.

We sat down with James Corless, the director of Transportation for America, to discuss the future of transportation funding and what Utah’s business community can do to make transportation a priority.

Rep. Greg Hughes: Anticipating Future Transportation Needs

Monday, September 9th, 2013

By LaVarr Webb

In his speeches on politics and public policy, Greg Hughes is fond of quoting hockey star Wayne Gretzky, who said that good hockey players skate to the puck. But great hockey players have a sixth sense that allows them to skate to where puck is going to be.

He applies that bit of hockey wisdom to his responsibility as chairman of the Utah Transit Authority board of trustees. “That’s what I want UTA to do. What will transportation needs be 10 to 15 years from now? What will my children and grandchildren need when they are adults and the population of the Wasatch Front has doubled? What technologies will be available? What will lifestyles be like? I want UTA to prepare to meet those needs.”

At first glance, Hughes appears to be the most unlikely champion of public transit. But there he is, a strongly conservative state legislator with a tough-guy, rough-and-tumble reputation – helping direct the affairs of Utah’s largest public transit agency. He is an unabashed supporter of transportation for the masses.

Hughes lives in Draper and represents a typical Salt Lake County conservative legislative district. He is rising in House leadership, currently third in line as Majority Whip. He has been a favorite among conservatives for some time, appearing on Red Meat Radio weekly to bash liberals and defend low taxes, free enterprise, and limited government. Perhaps in part because he experienced a much different lifestyle in the East, Hughes has embraced Utah’s conservative way of life with more zeal than many natives.

Hughes grew up in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the eldest child of a single mother who was rather free-spirited, as Hughes describes her. Hughes was raised mostly by his grandmother for the first five years of his life. But Hughes’ mother was visited by Mormon missionaries and she stopped smoking, changed her life, and thus Hughes was introduced to the LDS faith as a little boy. His mother married, divorced, had two more children, and he lived off and on with his grandmother.

“We were poor, my grandma and mother worked long hours, I had little supervision, and I had a bad habit of getting in trouble,” he recalls. “But there was the church, and my grandmother played a key role.”

There was also public transit. “We took the bus everywhere, to Pirate games, the zoo, trolleys to all sorts of places. Grandmother never owned a car in her life. I got to know all the routes and became very comfortable with mass transit. I saw who it helped, saw how we and other city people absolutely depended on it.”

However, the Wasatch Front isn’t Pittsburgh. “In 1991, I moved to Utah to go to college. I became a very conservative Republican. I had seen how unwise government programs can condemn generations to poverty and hopelessness, and I strongly believe that conservative principles offer the best hope to improve the human condition.” In Utah, Hughes was aware of the bus system, but initially didn’t pay much attention. “Salt Lake doesn’t look anything like Pittsburgh, nothing like what I saw in that densely populated area.” As the bus system added light rail, and as transit proponents encouraged expansion, Hughes became a critic, questioning whether a comprehensive and expensive transit system made sense for the Wasatch Front.

Then, in 2006, a legislative bill was passed allowing elected officials to be appointed to the UTA board of trustees, bringing new perspectives and elected official oversight to the board. Mayors in south Salt Lake County asked Hughes to serve as a trustee. “I warned them that I might be UTA’s worst nightmare. I wasn’t an advocate. It seemed like an overpriced social service. But they appointed me. I attended my first meeting skeptical of the entire operation.”

But over time, as Hughes engaged in his new assignment, studied transportation needs in the valley, and saw rapid population growth and the inability to build enough roads and highways to keep up, his attitude changed. “Some people say I drank the Kool-Aid. But the truth is the valley is filling up. Utah is one of the most urbanized and fastest-growing states in the country. Most of our people are concentrated along the Wasatch Front.

“In the Legislature we were having really important discussions about long-term funding for transportation, and how crucial a great transportation system is for a strong economy. I began to see how transit fits into the plan and how important it is. Good infrastructure is really a conservative issue. Government has a proper, even crucial, role in providing good infrastructure. Nothing is more fundamental. It’s a bread and butter issue and the economy depends on it.”

Hughes said UTA doesn’t compete with roads. “It’s not like we’re fighting for market share. We’re fighting to absorb the always-increasing numbers of commuters and our strong population growth. People are coming faster than we can widen roads. We’re barely staying afloat. We need good mobility.”

Hughes said UTA collaborates remarkably well with the Utah Department of Transportation, local governments, non-profits, and the business community. “We operate hand-in-glove. The planning process starts with local governments. We only build what they ask us to. In most states, agencies fight with each other, try to protect their turf. It’s me or you . . . you get tax money, I lose tax money. In Utah, we work together. We have a unified transportation plan. It’s why we’re successful.” He noted, for example, that the new Mountain View Corridor would not have been built without a public transit component. “UDOT worked cooperatively with UTA and local governments, and the result is a great new highway with transit elements to be built as the need arises.”

“So,” said Hughes, “I find myself as a conservative Republican supporting mass transit. It’s sometimes a bit lonely. Most of my fellow transit supporters are Democrats.” He said he bonded with former U.S. Ray LaHood, recently retired U.S. Secretary of Transportation, a public transit advocate who was previously a Republican congressman from Illinois. Hughes has made presentations before national groups on why conservatives should support mass transit.

While Hughes emphasizes the economic and job-creating values of public transit. He acknowledges the benefits of serving the low-income and disabled communities. “I’ve met with the advocates for poverty programs, and many people with disabilities. If we provide mobility to people who are struggling, so they can get to jobs and to services they need, that’s a great benefit to society.”

He also has a message for those who don’t use public transit and never will: “If you’re married to your car, you benefit far more than you think. Absent UTA, your commute might be twice as long. Think about all the cars taken off the road. UTA makes it possible for you to love your truck or car.”

Hughes strongly supported UTA’s recently-completed 2015 Frontlines program, in part, because he said it enables UTA to skate to where the puck will be. “By completing the five new rail lines, we now have a backbone that will serve the Wasatch Front for generations to come,” he said. “In coming years we can structure our bus system, bus rapid transit, and streetcars to take advantage of the backbone and provide great service.”

Hughes also views public transit investment as something future generations will appreciate more than older folks living today. “Young people are different. They are technology nerds. They don’t want to sit in traffic holding a steering wheel, they want to be connected on-line and communicating all the time.” He cites numerous studies showing that young people aren’t as interested in cars and driving as are their parents and grandparents. “We have a whole generation coming up that will enthusiastically embrace mass transit.”

UTA is the target of much criticism, and Hughes is acutely aware of it, especially regarding executive salaries and bonuses, travel, and a perception of service cutbacks. Part of it is to be expected, he said, because UTA is a very big operation, spending a lot of money, and touching the lives of tens of thousands of people every day. Any mistake is magnified. But he believes some of the criticism also results from misunderstanding UTA’s governance, mission and operations.

UTA isn’t really a powerful agency, Hughes said. “We don’t have taxing authority. We can’t condemn land. We receive direction on projects from local elected officials through their planning agencies. Everything we do has to be done through cooperation and persuasion. We have very little authority to exercise, so we have to convince the decision makers, show them best practices, show them a vision, show them what’s possible, and deliver what they want.”

To “skate to where the puck will be,” UTA leaders need to see what’s being done elsewhere in the country and the world and to talk to people building and using the most innovative projects. That requires some travel, but it’s well worth the cost, Hughes said, to bring the best practices in the world to the Wasatch Front.

He said the UTA staff is directed by a very active board of trustees made up mostly of elected officials, appointed by the governor, legislative leaders, and local mayors and county commissioners. “This is a strong, diversified board, accountable to taxpayers, not a rubber stamp to the staff,” Hughes said. “At the end of the day, the board is not vulnerable to the whims of politics. There is no pork, no shoveling dough to my district.” He said he is impressed with the professionalism of the board, how introspective it is, and how it demands staff excellence and best practices.

As chair, Hughes has emphasized transparency, opening committee meetings to the public, holding more public hearings and always posting agendas. “We do ask the hard questions, and we carefully weigh decisions before us.” The governance model, Hughes believes, allows UTA to be more entrepreneurial and move faster than if it was another state agency. The board has also been financially prudent he says. “We are financially stable. We can operate our 140 miles of rail and our entire bus system using existing revenue.”

The board demands top-tier staff leadership at UTA, Hughes said. “We are spending many millions of dollars and a few bad decisions can be very expensive. We expect our leaders to be among the best in the world. They have to deliver.”

Current general manager Mike Allegra, a UTA veteran of many years, topped the list of prospects to run transit agencies in other states, said Hughes. “They were looking for the best. He has great institutional knowledge. He could go anywhere he wants.” UTA’s leadership has saved hundreds of millions of dollars, Hughes said, by planning far ahead and by being strategic and entrepreneurial, Hughes said.

Three examples, Hughes said, include the relatively inexpensive purchase of railroad rights-of-way years ago, bringing in the multi-billion dollar Frontlines program $300 million under budget and two years early, and getting through a severe recession that dramatically reduced revenues without severe service cutbacks. “These things are proof that the management team is capable and well worth what they’re paid,” Hughes said. “These are big issues, big deals. Inexperience can cost many millions of dollars. We’ve done better than nearly any transit agency in the country. Citizens can be confident that UTA is accountable and well-managed.”

Looking ahead to where the puck will be, what will be needed for the next generation of transit riders, Hughes said it’s time to look seriously at mountain transportation, distance-based fares, cleaner and more modern buses, increasing frequency and convenience across the system, taking more steps to clean up Utah’s air, and keeping up with population growth.

Mountain transportation, which has now evolved into a broad-based planning project called Wasatch Summit, is important, Hughes said. “It’s a ways off, it’s expensive, but it’s a North America game changer. If you can fly to our international airport hub, get on public transportation, and in an hour be skiing at a world-class resort, without having to rent a car, worry about weather, deal with congestion and parking – that’s a big deal. Not to mention protecting the watersheds, clean air, and safety. No other state in the country will have that. It puts us on par with the great European resorts. That is skating to where the puck will be.”

Public transit can help deal with the Wasatch Front’s air quality problems, Hughes said, especially if, long-term, it’s coupled with good development and land use planning that results in clusters of mixed-use population centers where people can live, work, shop and play in walkable communities, connected by public transit. “If we don’t want to live in pea soup, we’re going to have to take many steps to clean up our air,” he said.

Hughes believes that UTA has a history of skating to where the puck will be. “That’s what people like John Pingree, John Inglish, and Ralph Jackson were thinking many years ago when they had a vision of a rail backbone, and that’s why we’re where we’re at today. I can’t pay enough respect for those visionary people who made it happen.”

So the tough-guy conservative from the streets of Pittsburgh who is fond of hockey metaphors asks: “So what will be our legacy? How will we accommodate three million people on the Wasatch Front? Will we make the right decisions today so that our children will have a strong economy and good jobs, and good mobility? As board chairman, I’m not going to just sit and watch. I’m not going to be a placeholder. I want us to be taking action to get to the next level.”