Utahns are sending a mixed message about whether to raise transportation taxes as the Utah Legislature convenes Monday for its annual 45-day session.
By a wide 63-28 percent margin, Utahns oppose hiking gasoline taxes to better fund highways, according to a SurveyUSA poll for The Salt Lake Tribune. However, a slim plurality — 47 to 42 percent, with 12 percent undecided — favor raising sales taxes to better fund mass-transit trains and buses.
The reason they favor one but not the other may be seen by looking at the murky air pollution trapped by winter inversions.
“I’d like to see better air,” says Ron Schulthies, a Capitol Hill resident who was among those polled. He said if more taxes for mass transit could increase ridership to clean the air, he’s for it. “Where I live, I am often just above the pollution. Looking down on it is depressing.”
He has a different view on a gas tax increase.
“Gasoline tax is pretty high now, and Utahns are forced to do a lot of driving,” Schulthies said. “We don’t have the same opportunities to use public transportation instead like in other big metropolitan areas, because we often can’t get there from here on public transit.”
Air pollution and taxes are among myriad issues lawmakers are expected to discuss this session, with others ranging from education to the $13 billion-plus budget, same-sex marriage, liquor laws and ethics reforms after the scandals that led to the resignation of former Attorney General John Swallow.
The Legislature convenes Monday at 10 a.m. with opening ceremonies and speeches by leaders. In the afternoon, Utah Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant is scheduled to deliver the State of the Judiciary speech.
Transit tax for dirty air • House Transportation Committee Chairman Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, said the new poll numbers helped him decide to push a bill to allow — with voter approval — raising sales taxes for expanded mass transit during times of bad air pollution.
He said he is drafting a bill in cooperation with the Utah Transit Authority that would raise the cap on current sales tax for mass transit “to offer more routes and more frequent running of buses” and trains in months with bad pollution — such as January and July — or times leading up to them.
He said he might be willing to discuss whether to allow using such a tax hike to also lower fares or even provide free travel at such times, but is concerned that might not increase ridership and only allow current paying customers to travel for free.
Anderson said his proposal would likely be for less than the 67 percent increase in the transit portion of sales tax that UTA has said it would need to provide all projects in the state’s unified 2040 transportation plan — a hike from the current average 0.6 cents per $1 spent to a full penny per dollar.
“I don’t know that we can afford that big of an increase right now,” he said.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, plans to push a separate bill that would provide that entire amount, also subject to approval by voters.
He said narrow support in the poll for such an increase shows that even if it passes the Legislature, “UTA will have to work hard to convince voters that it will use any increase to improve service, and it may have to answer tough questions” about high salaries and executive travel that have brought criticism.
Passing a tax increase during an election year is rare. But the bills by Anderson and Briscoe would not directly raise transit taxes. Instead, they would allow counties to put the issue on the ballot to allow voters to decide.
Local roads • City and county officials have asked legislators to do something similar with gasoline taxes.
They have asked for the Legislature’s permission to impose a local-option gasoline tax of 3 percent — which would be about 10 cents a gallon initially. They say it would help them catch up on local road projects hampered because the state has not raised its 24.5 cents-a-gallon gas tax — which it splits with local governments — since 1997.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, is pushing a separate bill that would raise gasoline taxes statewide by 1.5 cents a year for five years, or 7.5 cents total. It would split that money between state and local governments — unless the local-option tax also passes, in which case all the increase would go to the state.
Anderson and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said they expect some discussion on the gas tax proposals, but do not see much support for them this election year. They said the Interim Transportation Committee is scheduled to take another year to look at a variety of options for raising funds needed for transportation — such as a tax on vehicle miles traveled (because Utahns now drive less, and alternative-fuel vehicles escape gas tax) or a sales tax on top of a gasoline tax.
Chambers of commerce have been leading a drive for higher taxes to fund an estimated $11 billion shortfall over 30 years for high-priority projects identified in the state’s unified transportation plan.
H. David Burton, the former LDS Church presiding bishop who is co-chairman of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Utah Transportation Coalition, said the poll numbers “certainly show we have more work to do, and there is skepticism in various segments of the community about the usefulness of depending on the gasoline tax” to meet transportation needs.
“That means we probably need to be more creative in how we fund the gap” for transportation projects, he said.
Van Tassell said he doesn’t see a gas tax hike passing this year “because there are a lot of people kicking around ideas, but I haven’t seen anything yet that brings everything together.”
The poll interviewed 600 Utahns on Jan. 10-13. The statistical margin of error is between 3.9 and 4.1 percentage points, plus or minus.