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(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A new audit says UTA is so mired in debt it might have a hard time restoring the bus service cut to help pay for adding train lines in recent years.
UTA says it is not seeking a tax hike
Transportation » But executives told lawmakers more money will be needed to pay for planned projects, service enhancements.
First Published Jul 23 2013 06:27 pm • Last Updated Jul 24 2013 10:41 am

The Utah Transit Authority says it has not asked legislators for a sales tax increase, contradicting news reports of a few days earlier.

That’s news to at least some lawmakers who were at a hearing last week of the Transportation Interim Committee, and it raises questions about what UTA is seeking, and whether it is a tax hike.

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The Utah Transit Authority offers reduced bus and rail service on Pioneer Day, with some service blocked during the Days of ‘47 Parade. Details on available service is available at bit.ly/15FToYP.

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"What I heard is that future transportation projects would require an increase from 0.6 [cent tax per $1 in sales] to a full penny," said Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City. "I said I wouldn’t vote for an increase until they cleaned up their act, and the presentation sounded like an increase to me."

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, a former member of the UTA board, said the message got through.

"They explained what they want, so we got the drift [about an increase]. Maybe they didn’t say, ‘Give it to us,’ but the math was there."

But Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, the House chairman of the committee, said, "I didn’t see UTA asking for it."

He said his committee realizes the Wasatch Front faces a shortfall of $11.3 billion through 2040 for high priority transportation projects, and is trying to figure how to fund them — and said UTA was discussing possibilities.

The Tribune last week reported that UTA told legislators "it will soon need a 66 percent increase in its share of sales taxes to fund service improvements that it figures the growing Wasatch Front will need over the next 30 years."

Over the weekend, UTA posted a statement on its website contending that story is inaccurate.

"UTA has not asked state officials for a tax increase. UTA’s existing funding is sufficient for current operations," it says.

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The post also said UTA simply made a presentation about the state’s unified transportation plan that looks at transit needs through 2040. The clarification did not mention that UTA officials told legislators that projects included in that plan would require increasing sales tax for transit by 66 percent.

"Reporting on a plan that contains a recommendation for a tax increase is not the same as calling for a tax increase," spokesman Remi Barron said Tuesday. Asked when UTA might formally request an increase, Barron said "any requests for increased funding for transit will come from the Unified Plan under the direction of local and state officials."

At the hearing, UTA General Counsel Bruce Jones said that while the agency can operate its current system and schedules without the need for additional funding, that "would not permit the additional capital projects that we think the community is insisting upon."

Jones added, "We would think a good transit system would include the restoration of some of the bus services and other services to the community that are not presently in our plan" and were cut to help afford recent new rail lines. "Those kinds of programs would take some additional funding."

Anderson asked Jones during the meeting if the 2040 plan depended on additional funding.

"Yes, the 2040 plan contemplates really a one-cent sales tax. We’re at about .6 presently," Jones responded. "Our projects that we intend to complete are outlined in that plan."

Jones later said many comparable transit systems already have a full one-cent sales tax supporting them. "Austin, Atlanta, San Jose, Houston and Denver and Dallas all have a one-cent sales tax," he said.

Anderson asked if any action by the Legislature would be needed to allow a similar increase here.

"Yes," Jones said. He said the Legislature would need to raise current caps on sales tax, then local officials would need to put a transit tax referendum on the ballot, and voters would need to approve it.

Amid questions about what UTA’s priorities would be with any higher funding, Jones explained the agency’s general view.

"We would enhance service. We think that transit in order to be effective, it has to be a lot more convenient than it is now." Also, he said UTA would like "some capital projects like bus rapid transit in Utah County and other places."

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