by Howard Stephenson


The September special session of the Utah Legislature gave the Salt Lake County Council of Governments (COG) everything it wanted. But in authorizing Salt Lake County to place a new ¼ cent sales tax on the November ballot, the legislature also required careful prioritization of projects based on their ability to relieve traffic congestion and accidents, the COG laughed all the way to the bank as they committed a paltry $30 million of an approximate $1 billion to highways.

The COG, which includes mayors throughout the county and county council members, had sought legislation to change the Salt Lake County ballot proposition from a $900 million dollar Trax property tax bond to a sales tax authorization instead.  County officials and city mayors were concerned that a property tax for light rail expansion would not have the same chance with voters as a sales tax hike would.

So the legislature gave in to the COG’s demands but wanted to ensure the money was spent to yield the best bang for the buck. Legislators are currently providing $700 million in general fund money for transportation projects in addition to giving millions of state sales tax dollars for city and county roads.

Having given so much toward unmet transportation needs and still not seeing a light at the end of the unfunded project tunnel, the Legislature wrote into the legislation a requirement that ¼ of the ¼ cent sales tax would go for Mountain View Highway corridor preservation and that a scientific weighting process be used to compare the relative merits of transit and highway projects and prioritize those with the biggest effect on congestion and safety improvement.

There were in many legislators’ minds serious doubts about the immediate need for three of the four proposed light rail spurs.  They observed that even though the federal government, which is big on mass transit, dedicates 25% of all federal gas tax dollars to mass transit, the feds are funding only the Daybreak line.  The real reason the other three lines were proposed to be built early without waiting to justify federal support, is that supporters thought the ballot needed to include projects around the valley to win voter support.

Because of the fact that Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) exist in separate silos, there has been no motivation for a cost-benefit analysis of transit and road projects side by side, yet taxpayers pay for both.  Because of the mistakes experienced with the highly political Centennial Highway Fund, which spread projects around the state to win legislative support, the legislature has directed UDOT to prioritize highway projects based on scientific need, not politics.  The legislature sought to engage the same process to prioritize transit projects together with roads – on a statewide basis.

So in a September special session the legislature passed HB 4001 which authorized the county to seek voter approval of the ¼ cent sales tax on the November ballot and take the property tax bond off the ballot, together with the requirement for a combined project prioritization process and earmarking ¼ of the tax for Mountain View corridor preservation.

From press reports and COG members’ reaction to the legislation you would have thought that the legislature had done something very bad in passing HB 4001. The Salt Lake Tribune said the legislature was a bully in wrestling the property tax bond from the county ballot and forcing them to use the sales tax (even though the county had been pleading for the switch and had urged the Governor to call the special session to enable the sales tax authorization instead of property taxes.)

County Councilman Joe Hatch said about the prioritization process: “The Legislature concocted this Rube Goldberg contraption. You run the marbles through it and nobody knows where they’re going to come out in the end. It’s very weird.”

Councilwoman Jenny Wilson argued that the polls show the people believed they were voting for light rail, so that’s what should be built. If the facts mean anything, the ballot used language including rail and highways and the statute enabling the vote required ¼ to be used for highway corridor preservation and the rest spent according to projects relieving the most congestion and accidents.

In the end, although many road projects were ranked higher on the priority list than rail, the COG skipped over road projects, funding only approximately $30 million for roads and the rest for transit. As Councilman Hatch said after the COG decided to ignore the law and skip over roads, “All you have to do is look at the bottom line: 97 percent of those funds are going to transit. How could I not be a happy camper with that?”

Perhaps the biggest insult to the legislature’s passage of HB 4001 was UTA General Manager John Inglish’s comments after the COG announced they would skip over highways to fund commuter rail and the Daybreak and West Valley Trax lines. He rose to announce that UTA has plenty of money to also fund the lowest-prioritized Draper and Airport lines. He said UTA could fund the construction on the 7-10 year timeline originally projected. This announcement was a surprise to both legislators and voters who were told the new tax was essential for the funding of the transit projects on the list.

The Legislature needs to consider this passive-aggressive reaction by local officials when considering their request to use more state funds for local B&C roads. It seems the state doesn’t have enough cooperation from the locals to justify using scarce highway funds which would be better used for state purposes than wasteful local spending.