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Keep transit as priority

Sometimes, some state lawmakers act as if they're on a different team than the rest of us.

Officials with the Utah Transit Authority just finished successfully finessing a $500 million agreement with Washington that will help it build four new TRAX lines plus a commuter rail project to Provo. It was a marvelous coup at a time when many U.S. cities are lobbying for money to build their own transit projects.

And now members of the Legislature want to jeopardize that by getting Salt Lake County to reconsider its decision on how to distribute a sales tax hike voters approved last November. The bottom line is that the lawmakers would rather have more of that money go toward highway projects, which could mess up the funding arrangement with the feds.

Two factors appear to be at work here. One is a bias toward highways by some lawmakers. The other is a struggle for power. The Legislature doesn't want its bias toward highways to be trumped by county leaders, who are trying to honor the intent with which voters approved a sales tax hike last year.

In that election, 69 percent of voters in Utah County and 65 percent in Salt Lake County supported the tax hike. Exit polling by Dan Jones & Associates showed most of the voters believed they were imposing a tax hike to pay for transit, even though the hike also was supposed to fund some highway projects.

A recent legislative audit found that the county made a math error when using a prioritization formula to determine which projects should receive priority. That formula, by the way, was set by lawmakers. But the law also allowed the county to use its judgment in the final selection process, which is exactly what happened.

Now, county leaders will meet again next month to vote once again on the priorities.

County leaders, just as the voters who cast ballots last November, have a bias toward transit, and for good reason. The Wasatch Front simply can't pave its way out of traffic congestion. Mass transit is clean, efficient and popular, but it is not available to most people. Government already has spent untold billions to subsidize automobile traffic through highway construction (the I-15 reconstruction project in Salt Lake County alone cost $1.59 billion). It's time to begin seriously subsidizing transit construction.

The worst part of this episode has been the threat that the county could face trouble in the upcoming legislative session unless it knuckles under.

Lawmakers, county officials and voters all are Utahns. They all should be pulling together to build an efficient and environmentally friendly transportation infrastructure.