ST. GEORGE – Municipalities in Southern Utah are facing a critical lack of money for road maintenance, and officials are hoping voters will approve a tax increase to solve the problem.
City officials throughout Southern Utah are considering resolutions urging county leaders to put the optional sales tax for transportation funding on the ballot this November.
The 0.25 percent general sales tax for transportation is the equivalent to one cent for every $4 spent and would fund critical local transportation needs including walking and biking trails, road improvements and public transit service expansion.
Traditionally funded by fuel tax revenues, which have been dropping for decades, the shortfall has reached a critical point as cities and counties have been forced to dip further into their general funds to pay for road maintenance.
“It’s just simply something that cannot continue without it critically impacting the cities, their tax base, et cetera,” Ivins City Mayor Chris Hart said, adding that officials have only two options: letting roads fall into disrepair, or finding another funding source.
Ivins officials are joining with other cities in the county, asking that the initiative be put on the ballot.
Road maintenance was designed to be funded by fuel taxes, which the state collects, Hart said, then distributed to counties and cities according to how many miles of roads they have.
Over the years, that source of funding has dropped significantly because of increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles and more vehicles using alternate fuels, such as hydrogen, electricity and compressed natural gas, which do not have a fuel tax.
Both are positive developments, Hart said, but the unintended consequence has been that the number of fuel tax dollars has gone down, while the use of roads has increased.
The Utah Legislature addressed the issue in the last session but lacked the political will to fully fund transportation needs, Hart said. Instead, the lawmakers came up with a hybrid solution that includes a statewide 5 cents per gallon increase in fuel tax and the ”local option,” which allows voters to authorize an additional quarter-cent sales tax increase for road maintenance needs.
“If we do not follow through and create that additional sales tax then … all the cities in the county remain seriously underfunded as far as road maintenance goes,” Hart said, “and it’s simply not a sustainable thing.”
The state Legislature authorized the voter-approved local option in the Transportation Infrastructure Funding bill, denoted 6HB 362, earlier this year (see note under resources below). The measure will have to be placed on the ballot by the county, then approved by voters, much like the Recreation, Arts and Parks tax passed in Washington County in 2014.
The need is so critical that some Utah counties have already been forced to let roads deteriorate into gravel, Hart said, but he doesn’t believe local residents want that to happen.
While new taxes are always unpopular, cities and counties have no way to fund anything except through taxes, Hart said. Besides maintenance of traditional roads, cities are also responsible for the care of all the new trails, bike paths and other infrastructure required for the active lifestyle Southern Utah residents want and enjoy. Need for maintenance has expanded, and funding has shrunk.
“I think if our residents take an honest look at this, if they are willing to realize that what they want to see occur in the cities and county can only occur if there’s adequate funding to make it happen,” Hart said, “I think they will favor it.”
Even if the local option tax passes, the new funding along with the new state fuel tax will only cover about half of the anticipated road maintenance needs, Hart said. Cities will continue to have to fund road maintenance out of their general funds, but the shortfall won’t be as severe.
It’s important to get new funding quickly, Hart said, because putting off road maintenance gets really expensive; when roads are allowed to deteriorate too much, it can cost five or ten times as much to rebuild them.
“Frankly, to me, that is one of the most critical things that cities and counties face right now,” Hart said. “The fact is, there’s only so much money, there’s only so much in the way of resources that cities can utilize. When that runs out, they have no choice but to simply reduce the level of service.”
The local option
The Transportation Infrastructure Funding bill authorizes the voter-approved local option.
If approved by voters, the 0.25 percent general sales tax for transportation would fund local transportation needs. County legislative bodies must vote to put the question to voters on a ballot in a municipal or regular general election.
In areas without transit service, which include all of Washington County except St. George and Ivins, the funds would be allocated with 0.10 percent going to cities, towns and unincorporated county areas and 0.15 percent to the county.
In areas with transit service, which includes St. George and Ivins, the funds would be allocated as follows: 0.10 percent to the transit provider, 0.10 percent to cities, towns and unincorporated county areas and 0.05 percent to the county.
St. George operates the SunTran bus service, and so would be entitled to the 0.10 percent transit allocation, as would Ivins, although Ivins only has one route. The buses are operated and maintained by St. George, and the service is extended to Ivins through an interlocal agreement.
Washington City also approved an interlocal agreement for SunTran in January 2015, but that service is not operational yet, and likely won’t be until sometime in 2016.
Utah cities and counties have only one-third to one-half the transportation funds they need, according to a statement by the Utah Transportation Coalition, a group of business and civic leaders working to protect Utah’s environment, economy and quality of life through enhanced transportation investment.
Cities consider resolutions
St. George officials plan to put the resolution on the City Council agenda in July, Public Works Director Cameron Cutler said, because the city faces the same situation.
“If you’re having to pay for roads out of the general funds, you can’t pay for the other things you need,” Cutler said.
Cutler’s department has had to postpone maintenance needs to stretch the budget. For example, the city is chip-sealing roads about every 11 years, rather than the recommended six to eight years. Chip-sealing is one of the most cost-effective ways to maintain a road, he said.
If the local option sales tax passes, St. George would get additional funds for public transit and would be able to expand SunTran bus service coverage in the city. Currently, SunTran only covers about 50 percent of St. George, Cutler said.
In Washington City, the City Council will consider a local-option tax resolution June 24. Transportation needs in the city include an east-west arterial road connecting the Washington Fields area with the new Mall Drive Bridge and development of an Interstate 15 interchange at milepost 11.
Santa Clara passed its local-option tax resolution June 10, and projects in the city that need attention include North Town Drive between Rachel Drive and 400 East, Vineyard Drive and several other roads in need of repair.
Toquerville passed its local resolution June 10 and has numerous transportation needs that will not be addressed this year due to budgeting issues. These include Hillside Drive and Cotton Gin Avenue, in addition to a backlog of projects including the resurfacing of most of the streets in the historic part of the city.
Hurricane City voted down a local-option tax resolution in a City Council meeting June 4.
Hildale is considering passing such a resolution.
According to a statement from the Utah Transportation Coalition, municipalities in Southwestern Utah that have already passed or are considering resolutions urging their county officials to put the matter on the ballot in November include:
- Brian Head – Iron County
- Nephi – Juab County
- Monticello – San Juan County
- Central Valley, Glenwood, Redmond, Salina and Sigurd – Sevier County
- Note: The Transportation Infrastructure Funding bill, 6HB362, was brought during the 2015 General Session of the Utah Legislature. It passed the Senate 20-8, with 1 not voting; from Southern Utah, Sens. Ralph Okerlund, David Hinkins, Steve Urquhart and Evan Vickers all voted for the bill. It passed the House 44-29, with 2 not voting; from Southern Utah, Reps. Brad Last, John Westwood, Michael Noel, V. Lowry Snow, Don Ipson, and Merrill Nelson voted for the bill, and Rep. Jon Stanard voted against it. The bill was signed by the governor March 27 and the law is effective July 1.
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