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Voters across Utah may consider tax increases for roads this fall

SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens of Utah cities and towns are taking up resolutions urging counties to ask voters in November to consider raising sales tax for transportation improvements.

State lawmakers this year gave counties the option to place a 0.25 percent general sales tax increase on the ballot as part of a bill bumping up Utah's gasoline tax to fix crumbling state roads. The new sales tax revenue would be divided between counties and cities. A share would also go to the Utah Transit Authority or other transit agencies in areas with that service.

"Local communities have been telling us for years of their dire needs, and this addresses the needs," said Abby Albrecht, director of the Utah Transportation Coalition.

The group, which comprises business and civic leaders, the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties, estimates that local governments have only one-third to one-half the transportation funds they need.

A Utah Foundation survey in January showed 82 percent of cities and 95 percent of counties believe their transportation funding is insufficient.

The Utah Taxpayers Association opposes the sales tax increase and opposes the question going on the ballot this fall because it's not a general election year.

It favors a "user fee" — fuel taxes, registration fees and, in the future, a vehicle miles traveled program — for transportation instead of hiding the tax increase in a sales tax, said Billy Hesterman, the association's vice president.

Also, voter turnout is usually low for municipal elections, and elected officials should want to put a tax increase before the greatest number of voters "so people actually have voice" in the decision, he said.

Albrecht said residents would pay an additional penny on every $4 they spend if voters approve the tax increase. She said it would not solve all the transportation problems in cities and towns but would make a difference.

"We are really going to tell the story about why the need is so important. I really think that voters will start to understand," Albrecht said.

Municipalities could spend the money on projects such as road improvements and expansion, bike and pedestrian trails, sidewalks and mass transit.

Woods Cross is among the cities deciding whether to consider a resolution asking Davis County to put the issue on the ballot.

The city had cut its road fund when sales tax revenue bottomed out during the Great Recession. It's assessing its needs and costs for the next 10 years.

"We really don't have a handle on the maintenance costs. We know it's a pretty big number," said Gary Uresk, city administrator.

Residents also are complaining about crumbling sidewalks, he said, adding that the $25,000 a year Woods Cross spends on repairs is a "drop in the bucket."

"We don't want to go out and say, 'Hey, we want all this money.' But we want to be able to show our residents what it's going to be used for," Uresk said.

The Legislature passed a bill this year that starting in January adds a nickel to Utah's 24.5 cents per gallon tax, which hasn't gone up since 1997. It also gives counties the authority to hold an election on raising the sales tax for transportation projects.

If the sales increase were approved in counties statewide, it would generate more than $147 million for local road projects. A Dan Jones & Associates poll for UtahPolicy.com in April found 54 percent of residents would vote for the tax hike.

Salt Lake County has an ordinance prohibiting it from putting proposed tax increases on the ballot in non-general election years. The County Council would have to vote to override the ordinance to be able to do it this year.

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