CEO of Phoenix metro area’s bus and light-rail systems resigns amid probe into his expenses

PHOENIX – The CEO of the Phoenix metropolitan area’s bus and light-rail systems announced his resignation Tuesday amid a newspaper’s investigation into his expense reports, which included first-class flights and expensive dinner and hotel tabs.

Valley Metro officials announced Steve Banta will be leaving the company in January, but they didn’t immediately give a reason. Banta said in a statement he plans to “pursue other and unique challenges in the transit industry.”

The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday it had been investigating the expenses incurred by Banta, who has been Valley Metro’s CEO since January 2010 and reportedly has an annual salary of almost $265,000.

The newspaper said documents it gathered through the state’s public records law show Banta stayed in a nearly $600-a-night hotel room and bought alcohol for himself and guests at restaurants while running the transit system.

Valley Metro also reportedly paid almost $19,000 to take Glendale city officials to Oregon two months ago to examine Portland’s light-rail system, with the two-day trip including a $4,695 dinner tab.

Banta’s expense and credit card records also show he flew first class on eight of the 11 trips he took this year while representing Valley Metro on business and at conferences around the U.S. and Europe, The Republic reported.

“We had no idea this was going on,” said Thelda Williams, a Phoenix city councilwoman who chairs the light-rail board.

Before submitting his resignation, Banta defended the spending, saying his attendance at international conferences allows Phoenix to be a player in the worldwide transit industry. His statement Tuesday did not address questions about his expenses.

Valley Metro funds come almost entirely from tax dollars, according to the newspaper.

Valley Metro has a $349 million annual budget to operate a dial-a-ride, bus and light-rail services throughout Maricopa County, the company’s website states.