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RDA in way of transit centers?

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The Utah Transit Authority is rolling forward with its idea for mixed-use developments along light rail and future commuter rail routes, but there are three little letters that might bring the train to a halt: RDA.

Advocates of the "transit centers" — basically small versions of Salt Lake's successful Gateway shopping center, located at train stops — are pushing for a change in state law that would allow public redevelopment agency dollars to be used as an incentive for developers.

The Boyer Company, developer of the Gateway, relied heavily on Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency money to bring its dream to fruition. But the RDA law is unpopular in many circles. The Utah Association of Counties, for example, strongly opposes changing the law to enable the development of transit centers.

"Our problem with redevelopment agencies is simply that they don't work," association executive director Brent Gardner said. "They never give the benefit that was promised."

The Utah Taxpayers Association also has been critical of redevelopment agencies.

UTA's proposed changes to the law would specifically include transit centers as desirable redevelopment projects and make it easier to find areas "blighted" and thus subject to redevelopment agencies and their powers of eminent domain.

"Blight" is a buzzword for redevelopment foes, who say areas that look fine are declared blighted in the face of reality, simply to get the redevelopment process started.

Another problem with transit centers is that retail businesses are not economic development, as that term is usually understood, since they don't create jobs in the way a new manufacturing plant would. A primary objective of the RDA law is economic development.

UTA's changes get around that problem simply by labeling transit centers as de jure economic development.

"It may be good public use, but it's not economic development," Salt Lake County Council fiscal analyst Darrin Casper said. "It's a little bit misleading."

UTA on Tuesday may have gotten a taste of what it will face at the Legislature when it presented its transit centers plan to the County Council. While a few council members — notably Randy Horiuchi — reacted favorably to the idea, many others reflected a general bias against it.

"This seems to me to be asking for a unique form of subsidy," Councilman Mark Crockett said. "It undermines the long-term county tax base."

Redevelopment agencies — government bodies associated with cities and counties — assist qualifying developments through grants and low- or no-interest loans. They are funded with "tax increment" — the additional property taxes raised as a result of the development ostensibly making the property more valuable.

The RDA procedure has been a controversial one because the taxes go to RDAs rather than the usual beneficiaries — notably schools.

Nevertheless, UTA consultant Alice Steiner said there are additional reasons for using public money to fund transit centers. Chief among them are reducing traffic congestion and pollution by providing places for people to live, shop and work within walking distance of a light rail or commuter rail station.

"It's supportive in that it encourages walking," she said.

"When people are faced with a choice of known and inexpensive and unknown and expensive, they tend to choose known and inexpensive," she said.

E-mail: aedwards@desnews.com