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Old Posted Oct 31, 2006, 11:40 AM
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By Jared Page
Deseret Morning News
If traffic on I-15 in Utah County grinds to a halt, so will the economy.
That's the message local elected leaders and concerned citizens are trying to get out to the public before voters decide the fate of a sales tax increase to fund commuter rail and other transit and road projects.
A citizen-driven public awareness campaign is under way to ensure that voters know exactly what they'll be voting for or against when they cast their ballots on Nov. 7.
Meanwhile, local elected leaders are making the rounds in the business community, service clubs and other organizations to voice their support of the tax and the reasoning behind it.
Utah County voters will be casting ballots on whether to increase the sales tax by a quarter of a cent to address the county's transportation woes. If it passes, the tax would generate an estimated $765 million, based on what Mountainland Association of Governments officials say is a conservative annual growth rate of 5.5 percent.

Most of those funds would be allocated for construction and early operation and maintenance of a 22 1/2-mile commuter rail line from Provo north to the Salt Lake County border.
"Nobody likes a tax increase, but we need this one," said Thone Heppler, former regional president for Zions Bank and chairman of the public awareness campaign. "We need it to remove the congestion (on I-15) that's already here and will get worse. We need it to keep business commerce going so we're a healthy county with a healthy state economy."
The Utah County Commission unanimously voted in August to put the tax increase on the ballot. That decision had the support of MAG, which coordinates transportation planning in Utah County, as well as local mayors.
"We either pay for it now and put it in so we have the capacity for people to move in our state," Provo Mayor Lewis Billings said, "or we choose not to pay for it and then our economy eventually grinds to a slower mode as congestion increases and people can't get to and from their work."
Commissioner Steve White paints an equally bleak picture. I-15 in Utah County is due for a makeover in the next five to six years. Work will take about four years to complete, and during that time traffic likely will be limited to two lanes in each direction.
In addition, Utah County is growing by 18,000 to 22,000 people every year, increasing daily traffic on I-15 by 2,000 to 2,250 vehicles each year, White said
"We're going to have another 10,000 cars a day (on I-15) by the time we get four years down the road," he said.
Recent history shows how much Utah County residents rely on I-15 to travel within the county and to and from Salt Lake County. With three lanes, the freeway was gridlocked — often coming to a complete stop — during the morning and evening commutes until a fourth lane was opened in May.
A trip from Lehi to Springville took about 90 minutes before the fourth lane opened, White said. A reduction to two lanes — without any freeway alternatives — would make things even worse.
"It would take 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours to go 25 miles in Utah County during rush hour," White said. "Is that what we really want? Or would we rather get the cars off the road by having commuter rail?"
Darrell Cook, MAG executive director, says he expects the public awareness campaign in Utah County to benefit from the state Legislature's decision during last week's special session to allow counties to levy a third quarter of a cent sales tax to pay for transportation projects.
Salt Lake County will put the third quarter-cent on the ballot in November. Utah County voters will be asked to add a second quarter-cent.
"I think you're going to see some synergy as the Salt Lake County campaign takes hold and there's additional visibility and publicity from that," Cook said. "You'll see the two kind of building on each other. There'll be some compound effect and complementary benefit."
The Utah Taxpayers Association hasn't taken a position on the quarter-cent sales tax increase, said Mike Jerman, vice president of the group that advocates low taxes, sound tax policy and economic development.
The state's transportation needs must be addressed, but giving counties the OK to raise sales taxes isn't the solution, Jerman said.
"State-level governments need to spend more money on transportation," he said. "(Commuter rail) should be funded at the state level, not the local level — but obviously that's not going to happen."
The taxpayers association favors congestion pricing, a form of tolling in which the cost to use a road increases by congestion.
"Congestion pricing is about giving people financial incentive to change their driving habits," Jerman said. "Obviously, that's not going to happen between now and November. In the long run, that's what needs to happen."
Although elected leaders unanimously support the tax increase, governmental institutions are prohibited from spending taxpayer money to advocate an issue unless they allocate equal funds to each side.
That puts the public awareness campaign in the hands of citizens, who are raising money from area businesses to publicize the issue through the media and with promotional materials.
Billings says Provo is putting together an information packet on the quarter-cent sales tax increase to provide to anyone who requests the information.
"(Provo city's) legal counsel says, as an elected official, it's not only my right to put out that kind of factual information, but it's my obligation to do that," he said.
Billings said he also plans to support the citizen's committee in his own time and expects that other mayors will get similarly involved.
"The mayors are pretty revved up about this," he said.


Last edited by delts145; Oct 31, 2006 at 11:56 AM.
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