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Revote may scramble plans for Salt Lake County roads, rail

A revote by Salt Lake County officials on a list of transportation projects funded by a voter-approved sales-tax hike might not end up giving state lawmakers what they want.

Roads and commuter rail could drop in the list of funding priorities, and if Salt Lake County Councilman Joe Hatch has his way, a light-rail line to the airport will make the cut.

"Maybe we ought to re-look at these projects," Hatch said Tuesday. "I'd certainly be willing to be part of the discussion to yank commuter rail and put in the airport line."

The November revote was called after a legislative audit unveiled last week said county leaders had used a "flawed" process that ranked transit ahead of roads when deciding where the tax money should go. Lawmakers were upset because they said county leaders ignored a directive to consider funding for roads and instead supported transit.

A math mistake and "bias" toward transit may have eliminated some road projects from being funded, according to the audit. County leaders insist there was no bias at all, and voters got what they asked for when approving the sales-tax hike: transit.

However, the law allowed county leaders to push projects ahead of others that they felt needed to be funded, despite the ranking list.

Salt Lake County Council Chairman Mark Crockett said the decision-making project "was based on, 'These are the projects people wanted to get done,' and that pretty much drove everything else."

"The process had a lot of give and take," he said. "Everyone was involved on it. The Legislature was involved, the mayors were involved, the council was involved, and I thought it was a very good process."

Voters approved a quarter-cent sales-tax increase last November and were told the money could fund a range of projects, from reconstruction of 9000 South in Sandy to construction of a TRAX line to Sandy.

Pollster Dan Jones said last week that exit polls at the time showed voters believed the tax increase would go to transit. Nearly three-quarters of the tax hike was promised to fund commuter rail to Provo and TRAX lines to South Jordan and West Valley. The rest of the money was allocated for reconstruction of I-80 and to help preserve land for the proposed Mountain View Corridor.

But that could all change if Salt Lake County leaders change the priority list during the Nov. 1 meeting of the Salt Lake County Council of Governments.

If county leaders tinker too much with the priority list, it could jeopardize a $500 million agreement that the Utah Transit Authority has made with the federal government to help fund new TRAX lines and commuter rail to Provo. Construction of the rail lines also could be postponed.

"Don't they recognize we got a half-a-billion federal grant based up on the priority list?" Hatch said. "Do they really want us to change the priority list and give up a half a billion federal grant? Maybe they do."

West Valley City Mayor Dennis Nordfelt, chairman of the Salt Lake County Council of Governments, said last week that he doesn't believe the 17 mayors and county council members on the Council of Governments will change the priority list.