Transit taxes may be equalized — and raised — among counties

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) UTA's new long "BRT" (bus rapid transit) is parked in front of the Capitol during Transit Day on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City Friday February 2, 2018.

Counties now charge far different sales tax rates for mass transit. But they may be equalized — and increased — under after changes made Thursday to a bill to restructure the Utah Transit Authority, just before that bill passed.

Lawmakers agreed to allow counties to raise sales taxes by up to another 0.2 cents per dollar — or 2 cents per $10 — beyond current maximum amounts allowed by law.

But they delayed that possibility until after the next general session of the Legislature in a year.

In the meantime, they voted to extend a legislative task force on transportation to work with counties on a way to equalize amounts they currently charge — and then allow the extra tax on top of that to expand bus and rail service.

For example, Salt Lake County residents now pay 0.69 cents per dollar for transit; Weber and Davis counties pay 0.65 percent; Utah and Box Elder counties pay 0.55 percent; and Tooele County pays 0.4 percent.

Those six counties all belong to UTA, which tries to ensure each county receives roughly what it pays for — but that is sometimes difficult, for example, with rail lines that travel between counties and offer the same service along the route.

Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, House sponsor of SB136, said because county transportation taxes “are all over the place,” lawmakers want to seek equalization before also allowing additional taxes that they figure are needed for any expansion.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, sponsor of the bill, also said changes and future work will aim to give local counties more say over how they use such taxes, including how much should go for transit or local roads.

“I think the real concept is we’re going to deconstruct, and say, ‘Here’s your allocation counties. The state’s not going to give you rules on how you spend it. You determine the best use,’” Harper said.

Both the House and Senate ratified the changes late Thursday, and sent the bill to Gov. Gary Herbert for his signature or veto.

Negotiators left all other portions of the bill intact, including a controversial proposal to quadruple car registration fees paid by electric vehicles — to help ensure they pay their fair share for roads even though they escape gasoline tax.

The bill would also rename UTA as the Transit District of Utah, even though the agency contends that will cost $50 million to repaint buses and trains and change logos. The bill allows such changes gradually as the agency can afford them.

The bill also replaces the current 16-member, part-time UTA Board with a three-member, full-time commission — seen as more likely to watchdog the agency that created controversy with high executive wages, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers.

The bill limits their salaries to $150,000 each, plus benefits. The governor could fire any commissioner at will.