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 an 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.”