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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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