Facebook Twitter

UTA scouring for funds to expand transportation

SHARE UTA scouring for funds to expand transportation

Remember the huge fight in 1992 over increasing the sales tax for light-rail mass transit and expanded bus service?

Well, a similar battle may come again to Wasatch Front counties.And the 1999 version could determine the fate of a west-east light rail extension in Salt Lake City and a greatly expanded bus service.

Yes, before even the first Sandy-to-Salt Lake City light-rail train runs down the tracks in March 2000, residents and/or the Legislature may be asked to raise the sales tax - or find some other tax subsidy - so the Utah Transit Authority can supplement federal funds and expand its public transportation system.

The problem: Congress recently gave Utah funds to construct a light-rail extension from the airport to the University of Utah. But UTA needs additional money to operate that line, which could be completed before the 2002 Games.

However, if UTA can't show the Federal Transit Administration that it has operating money for the 10.9-mile extension, the $374 million in "free" federal dollars could be lost.

But UTA officials are being cautious. Because a quarter-cent sales tax referendum failed badly in 1992, they aren't suggesting another vote of the people. Rather, they're just saying UTA needs some kind of new, permanent funding source.

One option would is to just go to the Legislature and ask for a four-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax increase - with the money divided evenly between transit and local road projects.

In short, sweeten the pot for the politicians.

Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi and Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan are all for that type of sales tax increase.

"Local road inventories are lagging behind because we just don't have the money," Horiuchi said. "You really have to look at the whole system."

But Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, wouldn't look kindly on the state authorizing a sales tax hike for local roads.

"We greatly enhanced (local governments' road money) when we reworked the B&C (local) road fund split two years ago. Now they're asking for more?" Beattie said.

But Beattie did say he'd keep an open mind on locals raising taxes for light rail. "I've heard nothing about that," he said.

UTA, of course, believes there's no time like the present.

"There's no time like right now to step forward and say (to local officials), `As your transit authority, we have been out here working hard to make your long-range regional transit plan work,' " but that local money is needed to continue the effort, says UTA general manager John Inglish.

"All I'm trying to get them to say is that now is an opportune time to step forward with your plans and say to the Legislature, `We feel this is a good time to consider (another referendum).' "

UTA officials have armed themselves with a public opinion survey showing residents will raise their taxes for mass transit. But transit officials had similar surveys in 1992, and despite tax-hike proponents greatly out-spending opponents in a public advertising campaign, they still lost.

And even Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini, a major proponent of the west-east line, expressed reluctance to lead the charge for a UTA tax increase. She said there are other hurdles the west-east spur must clear before its ultimate fate comes down to an availability of operating funds.

"My approach to transportation has been one step at a time," she said. "I will certainly continue to be involved in transportation issues as they develop and evolve."

Add to that the fact that Horiuchi, the one supporter of a tax increase on the current county commission, will be out of office the end of this year.

Commission Chairman Brent Overson, who campaigned against light rail in the 1992 election, says no way, no how.

"I'm a no," he said. "I'm pretty much against any referendum to raise taxes for light rail."

Commissioner Mary Callaghan, who faces a primary election later this month, said if re-elected she also would oppose a tax increase of any kind.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the critical political base of a new UTA tax is changing. And already some politicians are looking ahead.

"I think any referendum (vote to raise UTA's tax base) needs to be larger than just Salt Lake County (like the 1992 vote)," said Rep. Marda Dillree, R-Farmington, a transportation advocate in the Legislature.

Dillree believes the whole UTA district - which includes Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Box Elder and Tooele counties and parts of Utah County - should also vote. If the hike passes, then those outlaying areas would be taxed and should get some of the benefit.

"We have lots of transportation needs - not just light rail or commuter rail - in Davis and Weber counties," she said. "We really need better express bus routes in Davis and Weber counties."

Rep. Ray Short, R-Holladay, had a bill drafted for the 1998 Legislature that would have taken away UTA's authority to call for a vote and, if approved, increase their sales tax by another quarter-cent. But Short never introduced the bill, saying he decided to wait.

Now he worries that residents will be asked to increase their UTA tax - or the Legislature asked to increase the tax - without light rail going into service.