UTA gives Utah County power to approve transit projects that use a sales tax it just enacted

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) One of UTA's Utah Valley Express (UVX) buses makes a stop in Orem, Sept. 25, 2018.

Utah County has become the first in the state with the power to approve or reject any Utah Transit Authority projects — such as TRAX expansions or new bus rapid transit routes — that are even partially funded by a new local sales tax.

The UTA Board passed a resolution on Wednesday giving the county that authority as part of the conditions for the county to pass along part of such new tax money for transit.

UTA also formally vowed to keep service levels in Utah County at their present levels or better — and to give the county quarterly reports on such things as ridership there, UTA tax revenue and the status of new projects.

Back in 2015, Utah County (and Salt Lake County) voted down Proposition 1 to raise sales tax for local roads and transit. The defeat was blamed then on voter concern over high UTA executive salaries, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers.

Last year, the Legislature restructured UTA because of such concerns — and gave counties that had defeated Prop 1 a chance to enact its tax increase without voter approval. Both Salt Lake and Utah counties chose to do that late last year.

The tax adds 2.5 cents to a $10 purchase (or 0.25 cents per $1). Legislation allowed counties to receive all of the new tax’s revenue for the first nine months of implementation. After that, 40% of ongoing revenue goes to UTA, 40% to cities and 20% to the county.

UTA Board member Kent Millington said Wednesday that Utah County implemented the tax on the condition that UTA would consult with it and allow it to approve any transit projects early in the planning process that the new tax may help build.

“They wanted an interlocal agreement … with UTA to ensure that the funds that would be made available through that sales tax increase in Utah County would be appropriately applied to projects,” he said.

The county and UTA negotiated terms of that agreement in recent months, and the UTA Board approved it Wednesday.

“It gives them [Utah County officials] some comfort, and us some comfort as well,” Millington said.

Before the Legislature restructured UTA, an old part-time, 16-member UTA Board could choose and pursue whatever projects it liked — although it coordinated with local cities and counties. Now, a new full-time, three-member board appointed by the governor — seen as better likely to keep a tight rein on the agency — must often also receive permission from others for new projects.

Such permission must now also come from a UTA advisory board — with members appointed by local governments within its six-county district. If UTA wants to borrow money through bonding, it now must also receive permission from the State Bonding Commission.

One big proposal has surfaced in recent months that would affect Utah County. The state’s Point of the Mountain Commission is pushing for a $1.2 billion expansion of TRAX to Lehi to serve growth and development expected after the state prison moves in 2022. UTA is managing a study to look at its feasibility, although it says it is only looking and has not endorsed such a project yet.