Things have been going UTA's way lately. The federal government has been generous, indicating it will pay for light rail extensions into West Jordan and Draper. Construction on the main north-south line is proceeding smoothly. Perhaps the time is right to once again seek a sales-tax increase to help operate the system - something that, by law, would require voter approval.
But beware. Another defeat at the polls would be a big blow to efforts at establishing a viable valley-wide system that would serve more than just the few who live along the north-south corridor.We are reminded of a statement by former UTA general manager John Pingree, who said after voters defeated a similar measure in 1992 that UTA should present the matter again after the initial 15-mile section is completed. That way, voters would see what they are getting, would be excited about the system's efficiency and would be more inclined to want to fund more of it.
Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini agreed at the time, saying the people of Portland, Ore., were more willing to fund an extension of light rail after seeing it in operation.
Understandably, that may pose a dilemma for the transit authority. Congress just set aside $640 million for Wasatch Front transit projects. The money would be used to build light rail hubs in West Valley City, in Salt Lake City and at the airport. It would build an east-west route from the University of Utah to the Salt Lake International Airport, and it would buy nearly twice as many buses as now are available. But without a lot more money on a yearly basis, UTA can't afford to operate all those new things.
UTA's general manager laid all this out for valley mayors last week, then presented the optimistic findings of an opinion poll. In it, 61 percent said they at least somewhat favored a sales tax increase to fund transit.
But public sentiment can change quickly. In this case, the poll also showed people generally don't understand where UTA gets its funding. The opponents of light rail, who all along have warned of an eventual tax increase, are sure to inform them.
Mass transit needs the money to become successful, but it ought to exhaust all other avenues first before asking for a sales tax increase.