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Transit’s fate in hands of voters in Utah County

Quarter-cent sales-tax hike on November ballot

SHARE Transit’s fate in hands of voters in Utah County

PROVO — The fate of commuter rail in Utah County will be up to the voting public.

Utah County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to put on the ballot in November a quarter-cent sales-tax increase to fund transportation and transit projects.

If it passes, the tax would generate an estimated $765 million by 2030, based on what Mountainland Association of Governments officials say is a conservative annual growth rate of 5.5 percent.

Of those funds, 87 percent would be allocated for construction and early operations and maintenance of a 22 1/2-mile commuter rail line from Provo north to the Salt Lake County border.

In addition, 8 percent of those revenues would go toward new construction or improvements of state highways within the county. The remaining 5 percent would be designated for other transit projects, such as a bus-rapid transit system.

A passing vote in November would allow commuter rail to be up and running as soon as 2013. If the expected I-15 reconstruction in Utah County begins before that date, an interim commuter rail service could be in place by 2011.

The commission's decision had the support of MAG, which coordinates transportation planning in Utah County, and local mayors, who in June unanimously voted to recommend that such action be taken.

Provo Mayor Lewis Billings said he normally isn't a fan of tax increases but agrees that the quarter-cent sales tax hike is the county's best option.

"When it comes to this issue, we're going to pay for it one way or another," Billings said at Tuesday's meeting.

Billings has served as chairman of a task force that for more than a year has been exploring transit alternatives for Utah County.

The Provo mayor applauded Utah County commissioners for their participation on the transit task force, which also included state legislators. There were no representatives from UTA on the task force.

Billings said that independent look helped determine that commuter rail in Utah County is possible with one additional quarter-cent of sales tax revenue.

"Until just recently, we did not know of that reality," he said.

Previously, local officials believed it would take a quarter-cent to build it and another quarter-cent to operate it. UTA already collects a quarter-cent tax from Utah County cities participating in the transit district.

"I think you have a decision before you that has better numbers and more clarity of fact supporting that decision (than in previous years)," Billings said.

In 2004, Jerry Grover was the lone commissioner to vote in favor of putting the quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot. All revenue from that tax would have gone into roads, which Grover says he believes is the more pressing need.

Darrell Cook, MAG's executive director, presented to commissioners a list of road projects in Utah County slated to be funded through state and federal sources over the next four years.

Those projects total more than $315 million. Add to that the $60 million portion for roads from the proposed quarter-cent sales tax and "that's a significant commitment to the road side of the equation," Cook said.

MAG has designated two road-widening projects to be funded with that $60 million — the north-south route connecting U-92 in Highland to U.S. 89 (State Street) in Pleasant Grove; and 400 South in Springville between the railroad bridge Main Street.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com