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Mayors want state transit tax law altered ESTRIPS.L. County mayors want change in transit-tax law

They seek a special session to delete I-15 wording before vote

SHARE Mayors want state transit tax law altered ESTRIPS.L. County mayors want change in transit-tax law

NORTH SALT LAKE — Mayors from Salt Lake County agree their residents should be allowed to vote this November on a referendum to increase the local sales tax for public transit.

But only if Gov. Mike Leavitt calls a special session of the Legislature before then to change the law governing how those funds would be used.

Without the special session, the Conference of Salt Lake Valley Mayors, which held its monthly meeting Thursday, fears a ballot measure to increase the transit tax from a quarter-cent per dollar to a half-cent per dollar would be defeated or become problematic.

At issue is a state law left over from the failed 1992 Salt Lake County referendum that sought a similar quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for light-rail mass transit, bus system improvements and the reconstruction of I-15. It stipulated that 25 percent of the money collected would go to the I-15 project.

The law still reads that way today. The problem is, the $1.59 billion I-15 project is fully funded and a year away from completion. There is no need, the mayors said, to raise more money for I-15.

What their residents really want, they contend, is for 25 percent of the money from any increase in the transit tax to be spent on improvements to local streets and roads.

The Utah Transit Authority,

which would use the rest of the money for commuter rail, light rail, an expanded bus system and other improvements, has no problem with that.

But if the language in the statute is not corrected prior to the November election, when the transit-tax referendum would be placed before voters, the Legislature could face some legal difficulty if it tried to divert the funds from I-15 after the fact.

"We can call it a technical tweaking of one little part of this" law, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said of how the mayors should approach the governor and legislative leadership.

Anderson said a formal request would be made to the governor as soon as Friday.

Last month, Leavitt turned down a request for a special session to address a shortfall in the subsidy that funds mental health care for adoptive children.

Leavitt spokeswoman Vicki Varela said the governor would not comment on the new request for a special session until he hears details about what the mayors have in mind. But Varela said, in general, special sessions are convened only when "we have extreme circumstances with unanimous agreement" from legislative leadership.

UTA General Manager John Inglish said the time to put a transit-tax referendum before the voters is now. He said there may not be as much support for it during a non-general election year, once I-15 is completed and re-opened, and once the 2002 Winter Games have come and gone.

The Salt Lake County Commission has the authority to place the referendum on the ballot. Inglish said he believes the commission will do that but reminded the mayors Thursday that someone must approach the commissioners and ask them to do so.

Even if a special session is held and the law is changed, Inglish cautioned the referendum could fail. A recent UTA opinion poll shows that across the Wasatch Front, at least 80 percent of residents support expanded transit. A smaller number, but still a majority, supports a tax increase to pay for it, Inglish said.

"There's nothing indicating this is a slam dunk. This is a do-able referendum, but it's going to take some work," Inglish told the mayors.

While the mayors voted unanimously to support placing the tax increase on the November ballot, provided the law is changed, some expressed reluctance to support the tax increase itself.

Riverton Mayor Sandra Lloyd spoke forcefully about her desire to make sure the southwest corner of the valley — South Jordan, Riverton, Bluffdale and Herriman — would receive increased transit service.

"We're tired of being put on the back burner with these types of things," Lloyd said, then asked for a commitment that UTA would expand service in Riverton.

Inglish said the tax increase would permit a significant improvement in bus service on the west side, up to the level now available on the east side of the valley.

Inglish gave each mayor a report outlining what benefits their cities would receive if the tax increase is approved.

"If the transit tax doesn't pass, you can forget everything," South Salt Lake Mayor Randy Fitts told the other mayors.

The law in question applies only to Salt Lake County and therefore does not pose a problem for Davis and Weber counties, which are poised to ask their voters to support the transit tax increase. But since the heart of the six-county UTA system is in Salt Lake County, the tax increase won't do nearly as much good unless it is approved in all three counties.

Utah County, meanwhile, has not jumped aboard the transit-tax train and is not expected to anytime soon.

Inglish said if the Salt Lake County referendum passes, within six to nine months residents would notice an increase in service on existing bus lines, particularly on evenings, Sundays and holidays.

It would take a while to order new buses, but they would be in service within 18 to 24 months, Inglish said. Some of the new services that would start up then would include a proposed Bangerter Highway express bus and additional routes or service into TRAX light-rail stations.

The money also would allow UTA to begin building a "commuter rail" diesel train network and light-rail extensions in the Salt Lake Valley.

E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com