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Utah County at transit crossroads

PROVO — Utah County leaders want to know if residents are willing to support a tax hike for mass transit and more lanes on the interstate.

Officials at Mountainlands Association of Governments and Utah Transit Authority say they plan to gauge public sentiment about such transportation issues with a poll, which could be conducted this month.

Utah County faces a transportation crisis. According to projections by the Utah Department of Transportation, by 2030 Utah County's population is expected to swell by 87 percent — swinging from 360,000 current residents to 677,000.

With such growth projections, officials say Utah County's highways will come to a grinding halt with constant traffic jams.

Given the situation, officials want to know how to proceed, said Chad Eccles, transportation planner for the Mountainland Association of Governments. "I think we want to know what concerns the public has concerning transportation and transit," he said.

Among the top proposals are widening I-15 through Utah County to five lanes in each direction from the Salt Lake County line to University Parkway in Orem. Officials also plan to widen U.S. 89 from Lindon to American Fork and introduce a better connection to I-15 from Lehi and Redwood Road.

But such improvements come with a hefty price tag. The widening of I-15 alone is estimated to cost $1.37 billion.

"What we need to find out is what the people are aware of and what concerns they have," said Utah County Commissioner Gary Herbert. "Is it more highways? More commuter rail? Are they willing to pay for an enhanced transportation system?"

Current proposals to improve transit in Utah County include joining a commuter rail system that will run from Ogden to Provo. There is also a proposal to create a rapid-transit bus system between Orem and Provo, the first of its kind in the state.

The bus system would feature buses that would run on dedicated lanes not used by other traffic. Officials say the system would be more cost-effective than light rail in Utah County.

But to achieve such transit plans, residents may have to follow their neighbors to the north in Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties and vote for a quarter-cent sales tax hike to help fund new transit options.

Herbert said the poll would tell government leaders if Utah County residents would be willing to use such systems. Herbert also said he hopes the poll will reflect attitudes toward the quality of existing bus service, if it should be improved or simply eliminated all together.

UTA spokesman Kris McBride said UTA is also helping with the survey.

"We want to know what the community wants and what the transit system will look like," McBride said.

From commuter rail to the proposed bus rapid transit system, McBride said UTA will be put in charge of operations. As for bus service in Utah County, McBride said UTA is considering a shift to organize the bus system on a countywide scale. Currently the bus system is handled on a city-by-city level.

Eccles said the survey's questions have not been completed. The poll will be done by Dan Jones & Associates.

Herbert said he anticipates some expressed frustration over ever-growing traffic backups. "As people drive down I-15 every day and the congestion gets worse and worse, and all you have is that thin, narrow corridor, some might say, 'You know, this is not working.' "