Proposed sales tax increase back on the table as council discusses countywide transit system

SunTran buses introduced at the 2018 Dixie Regional Transportation Expo, Feb. 13, 2018 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Through a combination of the Springdale-St. George transit route and additional funding that could become available in the near future, Washington County may have the building blocks for a countywide transit system.

“This provides transit opportunities we’ve never had before,” Fred Davies, St. George’s SunTran transit manager, told the Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization transportation executive council Wednesday.

The executive council is made up of local elected officials, local road planners and representatives from UDOT and the Federal Highway Administration and is the policymaking body of the Dixie MPO, which oversees transportation planning in the urbanized and urbanizing areas in Washington County.

During the executive council’s meeting, Davies outlined a way the beginnings of a county-level transit system could be built on the backbone of the Springdale-St. George transit route being studied and implemented by the Utah Department of Transportation.

Read more: UDOT commits $15M to explore, implement Springdale-St. George transit route

UDOT’s $15 million transit project is being funded by state money dedicated to the development and enhancement of transportation and other needs in recreational “hot spots” in the state like Zion National Park and the surrounding area.

State Route 9 through Springdale, Utah, May 16, 2018 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The funding given to the transit project is a part of an overall $100 million the Legislature approved for use last year.

Additional funding for launching new routes off the Springdale-St. George route and elsewhere can come through 2018’s Senate Bill 136, Davies said.

SB 136 allows counties to impose a 0.25 sales tax for the purpose of transportation funding within the county. Funds raised by the tax would then be distributed among the county’s municipalities and transit districts with the remainder kept by the county. The tax would need to be enacted by June 20, 2019.

Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom, who was present at the meeting, said the majority of the commission is not in favor of enacting the sales tax.

Under SB 136, however, municipalities are given the option to impose the 0.25 sales tax by June 30, 2020, if the county does not.

Half of the sales tax collected by the municipalities would go to transit systems while the other half would go to roads.

“This funding combination has never happened for Washington County,” Davies said.

SunTran bus in for maintenance at the Fleet Services facility, St. George, Utah, Sept. 3, 2015 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Davies showed a chart with estimates of the funding the county’s towns and cities could generate annually if they implemented the sales tax.

St. George would generate nearly $5.6 million, while Washington City would generate up to $957,000.

Washington City would get enough funding to cover the cost of a transit route, Davies said.

In 2014, Washington City’s elected officials looked at tying into SunTran. While a bus route was proposed and an interlocal agreement between St. George and Washington City was drafted, the cost of the proposed route, among other issues, derailed transit expansion into the city at the time.

The 0.25 sales tax for transportation funding was the subject of a vote in 2016. It passed by a thin margin in St. George and Springdale, St. George Mayor Jon Pike said. Elsewhere in the county the measure failed, killing it overall.

Read more from 2016 report: Future of proposed sales tax for road funding in question

Hurricane Mayor John Brammall said there needs to be a series of public hearings and a public education effort on the issue. Like other mayors present at the meeting, he expressed support for the sales tax.

(The tax) is cheaper than having to build roads,” Brammall said. “We have more than the population of Utah going up SR-9 to Zion each year. … Those tax dollars are huge.”

Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said he believes not enough people were aware of the needs and benefits that the funding the 0.25 sales tax would provide when it was on the 2016 ballot. This time around there’s more time to educate the public, he said.

Creation of a county-level transit system is dependent on the Springdale-St. George route becoming a reality, Hart said. He also pointed out that UDOT’s funding to the route’s operations runs out after five years.

Davies said his analysis shows that the route could pay for itself, inviting others to double-check his estimates. He also said he believes the Springdale-St. George transit route will happen and will be a great benefit to the area.

“There’s no question that will expand ridership,” Davies said. “It’s a positive thing.”

New routes and benefit

If all goes according to his projections, Davies said new public transit routes will be created as a part of the transit expansion.

Those possible routes would be in Washington City, the Hurricane-LaVerkin area and the southern part of St. George. The latter route would run along River Road toward Bloomington Hills and the Fort Pierce Industrial Park and residential area.

The benefits of a countywide transit system include keeping more cars off the road while also creating more economic opportunity, Davies said.

Read more: Springdale implements new parking meter program

Citing a 2017 study on the value of parking space in Springdale, Davies said the daily value of one parking spot could run between $248 and $357. The proposed transit route could open up about 350 spaces as both visitors and employees who work in Springdale could take the bus instead of their own vehicles.

With 350 parking spaces open with a value of around $300, Davies said that can produce a daily value of $105,000 for the local economy. Annually, that comes to $38 million. The idea is that visitors who do bring their own vehicles and have a place to park will spend more time in town and spend money versus simply moving on through to Zion National Park.

The reality of an expanded transit system spinning off the Springdale-St. George route will take a handful of years to implement, Davies said. Despite that, members of the Dixie MPO executive council appeared to be in favor of the concept.

We need to keep our long view and not be impatient,” Davies said, noting that politics and other issues can delay the transit expansion. “It will come.”

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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10 Comments

  • Not_So_Much October 18, 2018 at 7:05 am

    Is here anyone left who doesn’t see that one way or another, it’s more, more, more. Does anyone really believe enough people would use this system to make even a dent in traffic? Wake up people!

  • hiker75 October 18, 2018 at 7:41 am

    Wow, more talk about more taxes. A tax here, a tax there, everywhere a tax, tax. Don’t the new residents pay taxes?

  • NickDanger October 18, 2018 at 8:19 am

    First of all, this area needs public transportation like I need a diamond tiara; i.e., I wouldn’t necessarily be better off without it, but would the cost really justify the utility? I see one, or sometimes two people at the most at St. George’s bus stops OCCASIONALLY. Most of the time I see no one. I’m glad this handful of people has a way around, but isn’t current usage a pretty good indicator of future usage? Also, there is a common misconception – exacerbated and espoused primarily by tax-hungry public officials – that creating public transportation will motivate more people to use it. The reality always turns out to be far different.

    Secondly, is it just me or does $15 million (of taxpayer money) already seem like a lot of money for buses? You can buy a lot of buses and pay a lot of drivers for a very long time with $15 million, and in general, public transportation should pay for itself eventually via fares. So why do we need a new tax? Answer: We don’t, and the new tax will go to other uses when that becomes obvious.

    Third, I’m about 99% sure “Senate Bill 136” is going to be just another pork-barrel bill with a lot of items attached that make it hard to vote down – items that actually are needed. So we’ll be stuck with this new tax, bet on that. But don’t bet on people riding buses when they own cars, real life simply doesn’t work that way.

  • Scott October 18, 2018 at 10:08 am

    I like the sales tax plan. St. George is going to be a mess in 10 years unless we start being more forward-thinking. Nothing changes if we seek convenience, comfort, and laziness.

    • utahdiablo October 18, 2018 at 9:26 pm

      Too late…St George is already a mess….Vote Hell No to any new taxes, let these newcomers pay for this crap in Impact Fees to fund what we really need, More Police and More Firefighters

    • jaltair October 18, 2018 at 11:12 pm

      How about a fast rail like Cali’s doing, that’s going well, ha ha! This area needs more thought given to traffic planning and routes for all the cars. It’s a mess because the area’s allowing development to happen so those on the take (developers, politicians, and businesses . . etc) can get more money.

  • Happy Commenter October 18, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    If a private company wants to do it with their own money, fine! Subsidized by taxes, No frigging way! Let the ones who use it pay for it.

    • jaltair October 18, 2018 at 11:05 pm

      I was just going to say all that! It’s so ridiculous to think that the government has to take care of everybody and wipe their bums!! Sorry for my French, but I’m a little tired of all the talk about about taxes. NO MORE TAXES!

  • utahdiablo October 18, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    $15 Million to “study” the need? ….what the friggin’ hell…are you all that stupid Dixie MPO?…Or are you all just on the “Take”

  • KR567 October 19, 2018 at 2:28 am

    Hey sounds like a plan to me. by all means let’s do this thing and move on

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