by Howard Stephenson

Last week I reported on the good decision of the Salt Lake County Council to reject giving tax subsidies for a professional soccer stadium in Sandy.

Unfortunately, sometimes the county council makes bad decisions, as I believe they did in their decision last week to ask voters to approve on the November ballot the issuance of nearly $900 million in bonds for Salt Lake County mass transit expansion.  I believe this is a bad decision because the council failed to require any evidence that $900 million for expansion of TRAX light rail expansion is a better use than $900 million for highways.

Public comment was not allowed

In fact, the council refused to receive public comment during their deliberations, opting instead to hear from a handful of TRAX cheerleaders.  If the legislature were to make a decision of this magnitude without hearing public comment before the vote, the media would have a field day with them.  But for some reason, the media didn’t comment on the failure of the council to allow public comment.

Instead, the media reported comments from UTA general manager Johm Inglish who praised the council for a “very honest debate,” and called it encouraging that ?not a person here questioned the need for this.”  Mr. Inglish knew very well the Utah Taxpayers Association, among others, questioned the wisdom of the expansion but were not allowed to speak.

The Utah Transit Authority plans to build four TRAX extensions to its existing lines running from the Delta Center to the University Hospital and 100th South in Sandy.  The projects are expected to take seven years to construct and are estimated to cost between $1 billion and $1.2 billion.

The Projects

The projects, in order of completion, include:

·  Mid-Jordan line to the Daybreak development about 6000 West.  Approximate cost: $335 million to $370 million.

·  West Valley City line to Valley Fair Mall and West Valley City Offices at 2700 West and 3500 South.  Approximate cost: $250 million to $290 million

·  Salt Lake International Airport extension along North Temple Street.  Approximate cost: $250 million to $290 million.

·  Draper extension to 14400 South.  Approximate cost: $235 million to $260 million.

Driven by opinion polls

Councilmember Jim Bradley argued before the vote that since public opinion polls show overwhelming support of an $890 million bond for TRAX expansion, “How can we be so arrogant not to listen to the people?”

What the polls didn’t show is the impact of the property tax to pay the bonds or, more importantly, whether the respondents felt the money should definitely be spent for TRAX, or for the transportation projects which would yield the best bang for the buck – the projects which would reduce traffic congestion the most and move the most people and goods for the money.

Legal questions

There is a legal question about the use of bonds issued by the county on behalf of another government authority.  County legal counsel is expected to provide an answer by August 1.  If the county cannot legally issue bonds for another agency, then it is expected that the measure will not be on the November ballot.

Another kink in the proposal is the county’s continued expectation of seeking to switch the funding source from the property tax to the sales tax.  Governor Huntsman has refused to call a special session to give authority to increase the sales tax ½ cent for mass transit, as pushed by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.  Because there is also legislative opposition to a special session, the county is hoping to word the ballot language in such a way that the legislature could make the switch from a voter approved property tax hike to a legislatively approved sales tax hike.

In my opinion, all of this discussion is a waste of time until someone can provide proof that the money is better spent on TRAX expansion instead of roads.  I’ve asked for the proof from the Chamber, UDOT, and UTA and haven’t seen anything yet.  At the same time, there is substantial evidence from transportation experts Wendell Cox, Randall O’Toole, and organizations such as the Heritage Foundation that in areas like the Wasatch Front, building highways moves more people than expanding light rail and building commuter rail.