Despite earlier vows that tax hike funds would go to improve buses and roads, $400K now going to a study that may advance a $1.2B TRAX expansion

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) A TRAX train turns the corner in downtown Salt Lake City on April 26, 2018.

Utah Transit Authority officials insist they are not breaking a vow to voters not to use money from a recent sales tax hike to build additional expensive train routes, but instead spend it mostly to improve neighborhood bus service.

Still, through a complicated shifting of funds with Salt Lake County and Draper, $400,000 from that tax increase will go to help fund a study needed to advance a proposed $1 billion-plus TRAX expansion in the area where the state prison is scheduled to close in 2022.

“That’s not UTA dollars,” Interim UTA Executive Director Steve Meyer said this week, so no promises were technically made about its use.

He says the money is coming from Salt Lake County’s share of the sales tax hike. The county awarded $400,000 to Draper for a transportation study. But Draper then asked the county to give the money directly to UTA, which will oversee the study.

Meyer says his agency still is using its own share of the new tax increase mostly to improve bus service.

But the new study could lead to the sort of expensive rail projects that the agency once said were finished as it vowed to focus instead on improving bus service. Debt service on rail projects is UTA’s single-largest expenditure, running $119.6 million this year.

Promises, promises

UTA’s promises date back to the 2015 Proposition 1 election to raise sales tax for transportation by 25 cents for every $10 in purchases, with proceeds to be split among UTA, cities and counties.

Then-UTA Board Chairman H. David Burton said at a pro-Prop 1 news conference that UTA had “heard the public loud and clear.” He said the agency wanted any tax increase to “be used exclusively for increased service, primarily bus service,” not more rail lines. “More buses, more places, more often will make transit a more viable option for more people.”

Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Then-Utah Transit Authority Board of Trustees Chairman H. David Burton speaks during public comment at the Salt Lake County Government Center Tuesday August 4, 2015.

Prop 1 was defeated in Salt Lake and Utah counties largely over concern about high UTA salaries and its $2 billion in debt incurred to build TRAX and FrontRunner rail lines. Even after the dust of the election was settled, UTA vowed that its new focus would be on buses.

When officials on Salt Lake County’s west side complained bus service there had long been ignored, Burton wrote them that “we are currently working on a comprehensive bus system redesign” and “are striving to find the right balance of service within the resources available.”

But last year as the Legislature ordered restructuring of UTA and its board, it allowed the counties to impose the old Prop 1 tax hike without voter permission — which they did.

Salt Lake County gave the OK after getting support for the tax from city councils representing two-thirds of the estimated 1.1 million residents of the county. Most of the discussion in those cities, though, was focused on the poor condition of roads and the need to fix and expand them.

New $1 billion TRAX expansion

Not until early this year did public officials start talking openly about the need of a $1.2 billion-plus TRAX expansion to Lehi. That came as the state-sponsored Point of the Mountain Commission said replacing the state prison there with proper development could generate billions in revenue throughout the Wasatch Front “if the right steps are taken.”

A study by Envision Utah for that commission said those “right steps” include about $3 billion in transportation improvements, including extending the Mountain View Corridor freeway and running TRAX through the area.

“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.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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.”

Amid such pressure, UTA and partners agreed to take a needed first step of conducting a transit alternatives study for the Point of the Mountain. The study’s estimated cost is $800,000. So far, only $550,000 has been raised — but UTA is planning to conduct it in phases so initial work can begin with the plan that additional money can be raised later to complete it.

The funding so far comes from the $400,000 in tax hike funds shifted via Salt Lake County and Draper; $50,000 directly from UTA; $50,000 from the Utah Department of Transportation; $25,000 from the Wasatch Front Regional Council; and $25,000 from the Mountainland Association of Governments in Utah County.

UTA officials say they hope the additional $250,000 needed may come from the Legislature (which did not approve such requests this year) or from Silicon Slopes businesses.

Vows broken?

Amid questioning by The Salt Lake Tribune, UTA officials say arrangements for the study do not break any vows about use of tax hike money and do not commit the agency to an expensive rail project. The study will look not just at rail but also at cheaper alternatives, such as a bus rapid transit line.

The study is needed and represents good planning, they said.

“We’ve recommended to the board and [it has] concurred that our focus needs to be on service” in its bus system, Meyer said. “That should not preclude us from planning opportunities.”

He added that “if we fail to plan, we plan to fail…. Right now we're in the study phase with a small investment from UTA to study a critical area.”

The $400,000 that came from the new tax hike was out of Salt Lake County’s and Draper’s share, not UTA’s portion, Meyer said.

Also, he said the study itself does not commit UTA to an expensive rail project. “We’re not obligated for anything beyond completing the study.”

He added that the review will also look at other cheaper alternatives, including bus rapid transit (BRT), sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels with dedicated traffic lanes, longer buses with extra doors and ticket vending machines.

Draper Mayor Troy Walker — who is also a member of the Point of the Mountain Commission and on the UTA Advisory Board that reviews projects — said bus rapid transit similar to the new popular Utah Valley Express in Provo and Orem may actually be a good solution for the Point of the Mountain area.

“I'm not personally married to it being light rail. In fact, I know the BRT might be the answer. It's a lot less expensive. I'm just in favor of getting quality transportation. If it's buses, I'm good with that,” he said.

He said figuring out the best transit options “is a big deal to us,” and is why Draper applied for the $400,000 for the study and assigned it to UTA. “I feel like we are behind the eight ball” in planning for development after the prison.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Control doors and tower at the Wasatch units at the Utah State Prison in Draper. The Wasatch blocks are the oldest parts of the prison built in the early 1950's.

UTA Board member Beth Holbrook said officials perhaps should have conducted similar studies before rapid development occurred in southwest Salt Lake County.

There “has been the constant charge” that “we don’t have enough transit options” there, she said. “The growth kind of took over…. One of the things we can do as we move forward is to make sure that transit is part of that discussion.”

Meyer added that better information about transit options and alignments are a needed piece of the puzzle for other studies about land use at the prison site.

“High capacity, frequent transit service there makes a huge change in the parking demand and the street capacity that needs to be built,” he said.

“Those considerations need to go hand in hand and they need to happen concurrently,” Meyer said. “We need to know the feasibility of these alignments so that the people can move forward when the state gets ready to bring developers on board.”

Only one person has ever publicly opposed such moves at UTA meetings.

George Chapman — a former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate who closely watches UTA — told a UTA Advisory Board, “I am against any projects at Point of the Mountain until we restore a robust bus system” as promised by the agency.