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Another $2.5 billion in sales tax for UTA?

Agency tells county it needs longer time frame

Salt Lake County residents may have to pay $2.5 billion more than anticipated for three new rail lines in the valley.

During the past month, Utah Transit Authority officials and the Salt Lake County Council have been debating an agreement outlining how long UTA can use residents' tax dollars to fund the construction and operation of the rail lines.

UTA wants a 50-year commitment, which could raise $5 billion or more. But council members say the agency agreed last year to accept tax dollars for only 30 years or until it had collected $2.5 billion for construction of the lines.

The two groups are scheduled to meet this month to debate the issue again.

"This was a process that included sort of everyone," said Councilman Mark Crockett. "It included many back and forths with the Legislature. It included all the municipal leaders in the county, and the decisions and minutes are very clear ... and did not include 50 years and did not include this additional money."

Crockett said he would agree to let UTA collect the sales-tax money until the agency gathered the $2.5 billion needed to build the rail lines. That might take about 37 years.

UTA attorney Bruce Jones admits his agency didn't communicate clearly its need for a long-term funding commitment. The agency is willing to consider a shorter time frame, but having a 50-year agreement will ensure investors that bonds for the projects can be paid off, Jones said.

The longer agreement will also satisfy requirements by the federal government that UTA can afford to operate the rail transit projects once built, he said. UTA plans to begin construction of some rail lines next year.

The tax increase will be used to fund two new TRAX lines to South Jordan and West Valley and a commuter-rail line to Provo. UTA is also building rail lines to Draper and the Salt Lake City International Airport.

"I think in fairness, there wasn't a clear communication between us and the council as to the fact operations need to be funded by this sales tax, as well as the construction costs," Jones said. "But there is a stretch of an assertion that UTA is asking for more money."

Councilman Joe Hatch agrees that UTA and the council had a miscommunication about the length of time needed to collect the sales-tax dollars. He said he is also willing to give UTA the time it needs to pay off bonds for the projects and build the rail lines.

"This is an area we have go work out," Hatch said.