Provo delays BRT lease vote

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This image shows a view of University Avenue looking north. (Photo courtesy Provo city)

This image shows a view of University Avenue looking north. (Photo courtesy Provo city)

After hours of discussion at a packed meeting Tuesday night, the Provo council decided it wasn’t ready to vote on an agreement to lease property to UTA for stops and dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit. The vote’s now scheduled for Tuesday next week.

Council members discussed the lease agreement in a work meeting last week, but because of late changes some were worried they hadn’t had enough time to read it. Councilwoman Kim Santiago said if the vote had happened Tuesday night she would have abstained because she didn’t get enough time to read the agreement.

Other councilmen say they’re absolutely opposed to bus rapid transit because of how it will change the city, the cost and low ridership on buses in Provo.

“This will change the culture of our city,” said Councilman Kay Van Buren, who opposes BRT. “I think we need to continue to support our culture of families and children and community that way. I have not supported BRT. It’s a lot of money for a system that will not get the ridership.”

Two years ago, after many debates and another study, the council voted 7-0 on a route for bus rapid transit (like TRAX on wheels) through the city. Since then, UTA won a $75 million federal grant, spent about $4 million, designed the stops and picked contractors. Construction is scheduled to start this summer. The route will start on University Avenue at the Provo FrontRunner station, then turn on 700 North, go across 700 East over to 900 North and then up onto 900 East to University Parkway into Orem.

There was a referendum effort to get BRT on the ballot in 2016 countywide; that failed.

In addition to the $75 million grant, Utah County is pitching in a $65 million bond, which UTA will repay to Utah County after 12 years — principle and interest — using UTA’s 1/4 cent sales tax, said Wayne Parker, Provo’s chief administrative officer. The $65 million is coming from a sales tax revenue bond. And there’s another $10 million local cost for the project, which is in the form of lease agreements from the Utah Department of Transportation, Orem and Provo. UDOT will be widening University Parkway at the same time as the BRT construction, at a cost of $40 million, though that’s a separate project.

[pullquote]”This will change the culture of our city. I think we need to continue to support our culture of families and children and community that way.” —Provo Councilman Kay Van Buren[/pullquote]

What UTA now needs from the two cities are the lease agreements for city-owned land that will be used for stops and dedicated lanes. The route will start on University Avenue at the Provo FrontRunner station, then turn on 700 North, go across 700 East over to 900 North and then up onto 900 East to University Parkway into Orem.
Provo’s lease agreement covers a 1-mile stretch of the route for dedicated lanes; there will be 6.9 miles of BRT in Provo. The rest of the leases needed in Provo are for UDOT-owned property.

Opponents of BRT have been billing the lease vote as a last-chance to stop UTA from building the system in Provo.

But even if Provo decides against the lease, UTA is unlikely to walk away from BRT in Provo, Parker said.

Provo leaders and residents spent a lot of time negotiating terms with UTA in 2014, including where dedicated lanes and stops would be, landscaping, bike and pedestrian paths and driveways so people who live on 900 East would be able to back out of driveways without going directly onto the road or pathways. Without the lease agreement, that all likely goes away — but BRT doesn’t, Parker said.

UTA could walk away from the project without the lease agreement, but the odds of that happening are “slim to none,” he said.

For Councilman David Sewell, the point of no return on BRT happened in 2014 when the Provo council approved the route. He, and the rest of the council, made a commitment to UTA and “I can’t back out of that without an extremely good reason that something has changed. I’m just not seeing that.

“The most likely outcome of not approving the lease would be the project would move forward in a way that’s detrimental to Provo’s interests,” he said.

Sewell wishes the council had put BRT on the ballot; however, council attorney Brian Jones says unless the Legislature changed the law, BRT is not an issue the council could have put on the ballot.

The council will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in a special session for BRT. It likely won’t take more public input at the meeting. In the meantime, if you want to know more about BRT, Provo Mayor John Curtis is willing to come to you. Just email him at BRT@Provo.org.

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Amie Rose has more than 14 years of experience writing and editing at newspapers in Utah and New Mexico. She graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism. She lives in Utah Valley with her husband, toddler and crazy dog.

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