Council endorses November ballot initiative to fund transit

The Salt Lake City Council took the first step Tuesday in helping to get a county-wide sales tax increase for transportation on the November ballot.  The passing of HB0362, adopted by the Utah State Legislature in March, allows local municipalities to fund transit through a voter approved, 0.25 percent general sales tax increase.

In a 5-1 straw poll, the City Council voted to pursue putting the sales tax increase on this fall’s ballot.  The Council invited the Mayor to join hem in sending a letter of support for the ballot initiative to the County.

The bill goes into effect January 1, 2016, meaning that if the County doesn’t allow a vote in November, Salt Lake would miss a year’s worth of new revenue.  If County voters approve the tax increase, Salt Lake City would receive 40 percent of the sales tax revenue.  The remaining revenue would be divided between the Utah Transit Authority and Salt Lake County, which would receive 40 percent and 20 percent respectively.

Salt Lake County has a policy reserving ballot initiatives for even numbered election years, when voter turnout is stronger.  Salt Lake City could benefit from having the vote this fall because this year is a citywide mayor’s race.

According to Robin Hutcheson, the director of the Transportation Planning Division, Salt Lake City could expect to receive up to $5 million in new annual tax revenue.  The amount of money the city receives through the sale tax increase, is contingent on the number of counties that approve the initiative.  A portion of the tax revenue will be divided at the state level among participating counties.  If just Salt Lake County adopts the tax, the city would stand to get a higher share of the revenue.

“This bill was crafted very differently and the definitions are expanded to include local communities’ needs, what they feel is important, including active transportation and transit,” said Hutcheson.

The new revenue would help the city finance the implementation of its first ever Transit Master Plan.  The transit plan, being developed by the Transportation Planning Division, seeks to align with the City Council transit goals adopted in 2013, that call for at least two bus routes within 1200 feet from where each city resident lives or works, increased bus frequency, hours of operation and number of bus routes.

Salt Lake can’t legally advocate for or against the initiative, but can educate on how the money would be spent and encourage voter turnout.

The Utah Transportation Coalition, a coalition led by municipal and business leaders, would lead a county-wide promotional campaign for the sales tax increase.  The UTC was the group largely responsible for the passage of HB0362.  The Council will consider a $5,000 contribution to UTC’s campaign.

With the Transit Master Plan still in the early stages of development, the Council was concerned about insufficient time to educate the public and provide a clear agenda on how the money will be used.  Hutcheson was confident that the City has received enough community feedback to move forward with the ballot initiative.

“The things we are hearing through our community work will help to shape what we could be spending it (new tax revenue) on,” said Hutcheson.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.