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Sweeping transportation bill barely passes Senate

A UTA bus and TRAX train move through Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
FILE A UTA bus and TRAX train move through Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A sweeping transportation bill that raises vehicle registration fees, allows local sales tax increases and establishes new management for the Utah Transit Authority barely passed the Senate Wednesday.

SB136, the product of the Legislature's yearlong Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force, no longer would impose a 0.15 percent statewide sales tax increase to raise more than $80 million for mass transit.

The bill still allows for local sales tax increases, but no longer calls for the transit portion to go only to UTA, potentially creating competition for the longtime transit agency.

And the bill now raises vehicle registration fees from $44 to $72, and also continues to impose controversial additional fees on electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

What had been the most contentious issue during the task force meetings, coming up with a new way to run UTA, hasn't generated much attention. The bill replaces the 16-member board of trustees with a three-person management team.

The team of full-time trustees, nominated by local governments and appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate, would be responsible for running the transit agency day-to-day.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the bill's sponsor and the task force co-chairman, said he pulled the statewide sales tax provision because there was just too much opposition.

Legislative leaders had made it clear it would be difficult to pass a sales tax increase in a year where state revenues and surpluses have grown well beyond $500 million, especially in what is an election year for most lawmakers.

Harper came up with increasing the state sales tax from 4.7 percent to 4.85 percent as an alternative to another unpopular proposal in a previous version of the bill, increasing hotel room and rental car taxes.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 15-12, and it now goes to the House.

"It’s something we need to go through and pass this session. We need to get everything in place," Harper said during the Senate debate, citing "what it is going to do now and for our children and grandchildren in the future."

Attempts to amend the bill to remove the additional fees for electric and hybrid cars and to hold on to the new revenues coming in for mass transit for a year to give UTA time to prove itself both failed.