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Utah County fears gridlock

Proposed tax hike would fund options for mass transit

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Heavy traffic creeps along I-15 near Pleasant Grove, looking southeast. The county is growing by about 15,000 people each year.

Heavy traffic creeps along I-15 near Pleasant Grove, looking southeast. The county is growing by about 15,000 people each year.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

OREM — Orem Mayor Jerry Washburn said it is time that Utah County's transportation needs get a little attention from the governor's office and the state Legislature.

"The perception in much of Utah is that Utah ends at the Point of the Mountain," Washburn said Wednesday at a Utah Valley State College panel discussion. Something needs to be done to Utah County's transportation system before it becomes total gridlock, Washburn said.

Each year, an additional 2,000 cars are added to the I-15 freeway system, Washburn said. At that rate, the freeway will become a parking lot within the next four or five years, he said.

Centennial highway funds paid for I-15 reconstruction in Salt Lake County and also for new interchanges in Orem and Pleasant Grove. The bonds that helped fund those projects will not be paid off until 2017, and the federal government has said it will not fund any new projects until the bonds are retired, Washburn said. That leaves local officials scrambling to find ways to pay for their transportation needs on their own.

"Everyone doesn't want to face the inevitable, and that is having to raise taxes," Washburn said.

Utah County is considering putting a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the ballot in 2004, and polls indicate residents are willing to spend the money to improve their transportation system. According to a Mountainland Association of Governments Survey, 70 percent of the residents polled favor the proposed increase, which would provide an additional $785 million for transit in Utah County.

Hugh Johnson, a regional manager with the Utah Transit Authority, said an estimated 17,000 workers commute to Salt Lake County daily. Taking just a portion of those commuters off the road and using mass transportation options would lessen traffic woes.

The quarter-cent tax increase would help fund a commuter rail line proposed to run from Payson to Brigham City. But even if Utah County raises the funds to build commuter rail, it must wait until Salt Lake County builds its line to the county border.

"We can raise taxes and we can build commuter rail to the Point of the Mountain, but there is no Promontory Point — there is nothing to hook up to us," Washburn said. Washburn said that would require Salt Lake leaders to prioritize and take some emphasis off their east/west connectors and put $200 million into a rail system, something they have been unwilling to consider in the past.

There is hope, however, Washburn said. Leaders along the Wasatch Front have teamed together in a joint political action committee to investigate regional transportation needs.

"There is such great value in being able to have a regional perspective rather than just a local perspective, and I think it's crucial that we are able to look at each other's problems," Washburn said.

At the group's last meeting, leaders in Salt Lake County submitted a new proposal that "re-prioritized" their needs. The Wasatch Front Regional Council proposed boosting mass transit's sales tax share by a half-cent. If residents in Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties approve the tax hike, they would pay a full penny for transit projects — including an east/west light-rail line and commuter rail into south Salt Lake County.

Utah County is growing at such a fast rate that something needs to be done soon to the transportation system, Utah County Commissioner Gary Herbert said. The county grows by about 14,000 people annually. That is like adding a city the size of Payson to the community each year.

"Transportation is the most important challenge that we face in Utah County," Herbert said. "It's going to take everyone working together to address what is a monumental problem in Utah County."

E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com