The Utah Transit Authority is stressing that it has not made a firm proposal to build a $1 billion-plus extension of its TRAX light rail through the Point of the Mountain prison site and on to Lehi. It says it is simply studying the possibility.

“UTA is not proposing a Point of the Mountain TRAX connection nor seeking funding for the project at this time,” the agency said in a written statement issued prior to a meeting Thursday of the Point of the Mountain Development Commission, which is pushing that extension to enhance development possibilities at the prison site.

Meanwhile, reports to the commission on Thursday said the TRAX expansion would require significant tax revenue increases — but that they are likely worth it because the project is a key to quality growth, not only at the prison site but also the entire Wasatch Front.

Officials also emphasized that UTA has been looking at the TRAX extension at the request of the commission. The agency is proposing a yearlong $800,000 study to evaluate key questions about the project before deciding whether to proceed.

“Just because we undertake this kind of analysis doesn’t mean the state or anyone else is committed to go forward,” said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, commission co-chairman. “But it is an important first step because unless you complete that analysis, you don’t know” if the project is feasible.

The moves come after The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week reported that UTA is eying that expensive TRAX project after saying repeatedly in recent years that it would focus on filling gaps in the frequency and coverage of its bus system — as it had said residents favor — rather than building additional expensive rail projects.

Big rail projects in recent years created $2 billion in debt for the agency. Debt service is UTA’s single-largest annual expenditure, costing $119.6 million this year.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Envision Utah — which has been working with the Point of the Mountain Commission to plan growth — issued a report Thursday saying, “If the right steps are taken, the area could stimulate job growth throughout the Wasatch Front, significantly increase average household wages, and generate billions of dollars in revenue.”

It said those “right steps” include about $3 billion in transportation improvements to attract jobs and housing to the prison site, including extending the Mountain View Corridor freeway and extending the blue line TRAX through the area.

“Of the $3 billion that is currently included in the draft plans, approximately $2.5 billion has been planned for a later date than would be ideal, with the bulk of that cost relating to the Mountain View Corridor and to extending TRAX,” the report says.

“Accelerating these projects will stimulate economic growth and development of vibrant urban centers in the Point of the Mountain Area,” it adds.

“If we fail, those 150,000 jobs [envisioned by growth at the prison site] could go somewhere else,” Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow told the commission. “We could see a significant degradation of the capacity to get around the region.”

Envision Utah President Ari Bruening added, “We’ve heard from a lot of employers that transit is a requirement for them to want to locate in a certain area. They are not willing to locate somewhere where there might be transit in 20 years.”

A report to the commission by Zions Public Finance says if UTA borrows money for the TRAX expansion through 20-year bonds and begins construction in 2022 and finishes in 2025, debt payments “would start at approximately $36.8 million in 2023 and increase to a maximum of $73.6 million by 2025.”

Paying for that, and for expanding the Mountain View Corridor freeway, present a challenge.

“All of the existing revenue streams are tied up,” said Jon Bronson, managing director of Zion Public Finance. “So it requires developing new revenue streams.”

He suggested considering a mix of several possibilities — including imposing additional sales tax now allowed by state law but not yet imposed.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) File photo of TRAX train on the North Temple Bridge/Guadalupe TRAX station in Salt Lake City.

Another option would be to take advantage of Gov. Gary Herbert’s proposal to broaden the sales tax to include some services. While Herbert has proposed to keep that revenue neutral by lowering the rate, Bronson said lowering rates only partially could help generate extra revenue to finance the needed projects.

He also suggests possibly looking at “tax increment” financing. It would capture some of the increase in property tax values resulting from adding TRAX to the area to help pay for transit there.

“The time for action has got to be now,” said Draper Mayor Troy Walker, a member of the Point of the Mountain Commission. He urged not just looking at the TRAX extension, but perhaps mix it with bus rapid transit to reduce costs and move projects more quickly.

Grow said the upcoming study will include looking at such alternatives, but officials seek “to provide the best land-use changes over time. And the more fixed a system is [like TRAX], the more likely it is that land use will be influenced by the mode you choose.”