Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee says voters should have a say in how $65 million in sales tax revenue is spent; Provo Mayor John Curtis says they already have. The men debated Tuesday morning whether there should be a referendum on local funding of a Bus Rapid Transit system in Provo and Orem.
The proposed BRT route will go along University Avenue from the Provo FrontRunner station up 700 North and across 700 East over to 900 North and then up onto 900 East to University Parkway and then through Orem. It’s like light rail (think TRAX) on wheels — it has some dedicated lanes, riders prepay and there are limited stops and more frequent runs. It will connect the Provo Towne Centre, University Mall, the two Provo temples and the two universities. Its ridership is projected to be 13,000 to 15,000 per day.
“If I try to take a bus to UVU it would take me an hour,” Curtis said. “This route will move from BYU to UVU in 11 minutes. It’s a game changer.”
Part of the opposition to the project is that Utah County must match federal funds to get it; in this case that’s $65 million that would be covered up front with a sales tax revenue bond recently approved 2–1 by Utah County commissioners. The bond would be repaid with money generated by sales tax earmarked for transportation projects, which voters approved in the 1980s and 2006.
Lee was the lone vote against the bond. He supports a referendum petition now circulating to get the issue on the ballot in November 2016 — it needs 18,000 signatures. Opponents of the referendum say it would jeopardize federal funding for the project.
“This referendum petition that is out there … is not a petition for or against the Bus Rapid Transit system,” Lee said. “It’s merely to allow and let the people of Utah County have a voice, have a vote in it.”
Curtis said the people of Utah County voted to dedicate some sales taxes to transit, and “to suggest that we should vote again is inconsistent with our form of government. If we ask them to vote on every transportation project we wouldn’t get anything done.”
He says he’s not advocating for less citizen involvement or voter input, but many transportation projects have been done in Utah County and none of them have gone to a vote. Those decisions are left to elected officials and experts.
Lee says he’s worried about road projects that could suffer in the future because money is being dedicated to BRT — the Lakeview Parkway in Provo, for example. None of the road projects that have been approved will be postponed by BRT, Curtis said.
But it’s not just the money that Lee thinks should be debated and decided by the people. He wants residents to be able to debate the route, too. It may fit federal guidelines but it doesn’t look convenient and he doesn’t think it fits the residents’ needs.
Curtis countered that BRT has been the subject of public meetings over many years and has been “studied and studied.” Last year the Provo council, which questioned UTA’s chosen route, spent nearly $100,000 for an independent consultant to study possible routes. The outcome of that — the UTA route was the best choice.
Lee said now may not even be the right time for BRT in Utah County, even though it is a viable transportation model used in other parts of the country.
“It might be looked at in many ways as premature,” he said, because of what it takes to have dedicated lanes and the population density along the route.
The petition would slow down the process to allow the conversation about BRT to continue, Lee said.
Curtis said the project needs to move forward — “it’s a good project. Difficult, yes. Painful, yes. But something we need to do.”