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UTA seeks mercy

Published July 19, 2013 5:18 pm

Sales tax hike will be a hard sell
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pardon the strained cliché, but a Utah Transit Authority vision that could include a 66 percent hike in its special sales tax cannot help but bring to mind the old joke about the person who murders his parents and then seeks mercy because he is an orphan.

The UTA poured billions of local and federal dollars into its shiny and popular — at least with politicians and well-heeled commuters — light and commuter rail systems.

Board members were so proud of what they'd built, and of the fact that it all came in well under budget and ahead of schedule, that they rewarded their already highly paid executives with a round of generous bonuses and, in the case of now-retired UTA boss John Inglish, an outrageously cushy pension.

But then UTA didn't have enough money to properly support the overall system, particularly the bus routes relied upon mostly by less-affluent students and service workers. Fares were raised, bus routes were redirected or terminated.

Soon, not a few people who used to happily take the bus to work or school determined that higher fares, longer waits, longer walks, more transfers and a system that makes buses subservient to, rather than compatible with, the TRAX and FrontRunner rail services equals a desire to head to the nearest used car lot.

Which is exactly the opposite of what a modern transit system is supposed to do. And wholly counter to the reason why such operations deserve any kind of taxpayer subsidy.

So Wednesday, UTA managers threw themselves upon the mercy of a very skeptical Utah Legislature, explaining what could be the first step in a process that might lead to raising the transit sales tax to a uniform one cent on every dollar spent on taxable purchases. That rate now varies across the communities served by UTA, including 0.53 of a cent in Utah County and 0.69 of a cent in Salt Lake County.

Actually winning that higher tax rate, should the UTA officially seek it, would be a long haul.

The Legislature would have to approve a higher transit tax cap. City and county governments would have to agree to put the measures on local ballots. And the people, most of whom don't ride UTA, would have to approve them.

The most depressing part is that UTA's figures are probably right. A penny per dollar is normal for a metropolitan transit tax. The population of the service area is growing very fast, which means the services offered have to be turbocharged to have any hope of catching up. And efforts to get the residents of this already highly polluted valley out of cars and onto public transit are necessary.

It's just too bad that UTA officials won't be the best people to carry this necessary message.