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Most in poll want a vote on UTA tax hike

SHARE Most in poll want a vote on UTA tax hike

A clear majority of Salt Lake County voters believes the Utah Transit Authority should have the chance to ask for a tax increase to expand public transit.

A majority also would vote against a quarter-cent sales-tax hike, however, if the money were used only to operate a west-east light-rail extension and to expand the agency's bus system.If the money funded local road improvements as well, such a referendum would be more likely to pass, according to a recent Deseret News opinion poll by Dan Jones & Associates.

UTA is gearing up for a tax-increase referendum, possibly as soon as November 1999.

"All we're asking is for people to have an opportunity to vote, and your poll did say it's an important issue that people should be allowed to vote on," said Brian Hatch, senior adviser to the Salt Lake mayor and a transit proponent.

A Salt Lake County referendum in 1992 asking for a quarter-cent tax increase for light rail, buses and I-15 improvements failed 57 percent to 43 percent.

Next time, however, the agency likely will ask for a tax hike throughout its six-county district and use the money on as many as five light-rail lines, diesel commuter rail between Brigham City and Payson, new buses, transit centers linking rail and bus lines and to initiate Sunday service.

Mayors and county commissioners in Salt Lake County want to include road improvements in such a referendum. That is seen by UTA as a friendly proposal. Some of the tax money could even be designated for construction of bicycle paths, pedestrian walkways and hiking trails.

"The only reason we would do that (seek a tax increase through referendum) is to go after a major public-transit expansion program," said UTA General Manager John Inglish, who already has approached state lawmakers about a transit-tax hike.

"Probably 80 percent (of the tax revenue) would go into basic bus service."

The Wasatch Front Regional Council, a planning organization funded by local governments, decided last year to base its future transportation planning on the assumption UTA would receive a quar-ter-cent tax increase around the turn of the century.

In addition to fares from riders, UTA now functions on a quarter-cent sales tax collected over six counties and receives considerable federal money as well. Agency officials say they can operate the main 15-mile north-south light-rail line, now under construction, with the present revenue stream but cannot operate other light-rail spurs, commuter rail or an expanded bus system without additional funding.

UTA commissioned pollster Dan Jones to ask 1,000 voters in Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Weber counties a series of questions in February and March. Sixty-one percent said they would support a tax increase to pay for an "improved public transportation system."

A Dan Jones poll conducted just before the 1992 election showed the Salt Lake County transit-highway referendum was likely to pass, although by only a slight margin.

"In my opinion, I don't think they (voters) really understood what the (1992) ballot was about," said Will Jefferies, the regional council's executive director.

How can that be different the next time around?

"Those who support increasing the tax for transit are probably all asking themselves that question," Jefferies said.

It is up to the locals, now, to do their part.

The federal government recently authorized Utah to receive up to $640 million over the next six years for new transit projects, including as much as 100 percent of the estimated $374 million cost of building the 10.9-mile west-east line from Salt Lake International Airport to the University of Utah. But UTA must show it can operate the west-east line with a local funding source before the Federal Transit Administration will give its go-ahead.

Hatch and UTA board chairman Jim Clark feel a referendum would have a better chance of passing if it were held after the initial light rail line is up and running. And that isn't scheduled to happen until spring 2000.

"It's imperative that people see what we're talking about," Hatch said. "And when they see it, they, like in most other (light rail) cities, will say: `It's great. Let's do more of it throughout the Wasatch Front.' "

UTA could delay the referendum and develop the west-east line anyway, possibly with what would amount to a loan from the Legislature. The agency will know soon if it can transfer about $20 million from the north-south construction. With federal approval, that money could be spent elsewhere - perhaps to build or even temporarily operate the west-east line for the first two or three years.

UTA engineers and construction supervisors, meanwhile, are doing everything they can to speed up the north-south line and have it running in 1999, before the November election.

The latest Deseret News poll by Dan Jones & Associates, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, showed 65 percent of county voters feel a UTA tax referendum is appropriate. Thirty percent said one shouldn't be held.

Fifty-two percent said they'd probably or definitely vote against a tax increase to expand UTA's bus network and operate the proposed west-east light-rail spur. Forty-three percent indicated they'd support such a measure.

Fifty percent said they would support a quarter-cent increase to fund road and transit improvements. Forty-four percent said they would not.

The survey, conducted June 13-19, queried 617 registered voters in Salt Lake County.


Deseret News Poll

Should a referendum be held on increasing the sales tax by a quarter-cent to help Utah Transit Authority operate an east-west light-rail in Salt Lake County and expand the bus service throughout the area?


PROBABLY SHOULD............20%



DON'T KNOW..................5%

If a referendum were held, would you vote for or the quarter-cent tax increase?

DEFINITELY FOR.............27% PROBABLY FOR...............16%

PROBABLY AGAINST............9%


DON'T KNOW..................5%

If part of the sales-tax increase were used to fund local road improvements, in addition to light-rail and bus service, how would you vote?

DEFINITELY FOR.............26%

PROBABLY FOR...............24%

PROBABLY AGAINST...........11%


DON'T KNOW..................6%

Poll of 617 registered voters in Salt Lake County was June 13-19 with a margin of error +-4.0 percent by Dan Jones & Associates, an independent polling firm whose clients include other organizations and sometimes political parties and candidates. Among its clients is the Utah Transit Authority.

Copyright, Deseret News, 1998