ST. GEORGE — As a proposed St. George to Springdale transit route becomes closer to reality thanks to a hefty investment made by the Utah Department of Transportation last year, elected county and municipal officials met last week to discuss implementing a local option 0.25% sales tax for transportation funding made possible through state legislation.
Last May, UDOT announced it was investing $15 million into the exploration and implementation of a St. George-Springdale transit route. It was a part of an overall $100 million investment in recreational and tourism hot spots across the state.
The $15 million is slated to fund the transit line for up to five years with Washington County and its municipalities picking up the funding after that point.
The proposed transit service would largely cater to tourists visiting Zion National Park and employees of various businesses along the route that benefit from those tourists. It is also seen as a way to help reduce vehicle traffic that results from the more than 4 million people who visit the park each year.
The route will run only between St. George and Springdale with minimal stops in order to keep transit time short. However, those stops may one day serve as connections to future bus routes that would become the foundation of a countywide service.
“This is the backbone of a countywide transit system,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said. “Look down the road about 10, 15, 20 years from now, we need to have it.”
Local option sales tax funding
Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said during a May 7 meeting of the Council of Governments that the county determined the annual funding for the proposed transit line would be $1.9 million to $2 million.
In 2018 the Utah Legislature passed Senate Bill 136, which allows counties to impose a 0.25% sales tax for the purpose of transportation funding. Funds raised by the tax would be distributed among the county’s municipalities and transit districts with the remainder kept by the county. The tax needs to be enacted by June 20.
According to Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, who was at the May 7 meeting, a more precise breakdown of funding distribution is as follows:
- 0.10% goes to the municipalities and unincorporated areas without transit services.
- 0.10% goes to the municipalities with transit services. That would be St. George and Ivins.
- 0.05% goes to the county in areas with transit service.
Where there is no transit service, the cities will get the 40% of the 0.25% sales tax revenue while the county will get 60%, Diehl said, characterizing it as “the cleanest option.”
If the county doesn’t impose the tax by June 20, the municipalities are given the option to impose the 0.25% sales tax by June 30, 2020.
Half the sales tax collected by the municipalities would go to transit systems while the other half would go to roads. The county gets nothing.
The sales tax option has been a point of discussion between the cities and county for many months now, St. George Mayor Jon Pike said.
If imposed by the county, funding from the 0.25% sales tax would produce an estimated $1.5 million in transit funding for the county, Cox said.
“It’s a piece of the puzzle that’s not quite enough money to reliably run the system and pay for replacement buses, but it’s not that far short of it either.”
The additional $500,000 could be made up through other means like transit fares or working with Ivins and St. George who might give up a piece of their own transit funding to support the county system.
That could allow the proposed route to reach from Springdale into Ivins, Cox said.
“We could make this work,” he said.
Other options include federal and state funding, Diehl said, adding the Legislature passed a law allowing UDOT to invest in transit services where it previously had been unable to.
A lingering concern and consensus
Still, a lingering concern expressed by county and municipal officials is that a municipality can give notice to the Utah Tax Commission that it intends to invest in its own transit system after the county may have already set something up.
An example of that could be either Santa Clara or Washington City wanting to use the 0.10% they would be entitled to for transit funding so they could contract with SunTran for expanded service into their municipality.
That could have the effect of torpedoing the county’s own transportation funding if they’ve already pledged that money for other projects, like funding the St. George-Springdale route, Diehl said.
The primary focus of the May 7 Council of Governments meeting was to make sure there is a consensus among county officials and area mayors for the county spearheading the funding of the route.
An informal straw poll by Cox showed the mayors in attendance were in favor of letting the county take the lead on the issue. The mayors of St. George, Washington City, Ivins, Santa Clara, Hurricane, Springdale, LaVerkin and others were present at the meeting.
“I think we’re all supportive of the concept,” Washington City Mayor Ken Neilson said. “Now the nuts and bolts of it, the where and how, will have to be worked out.”
The nuts and bolts will need to be approved by the town and city councils that county officials will be working with, both Pike and Neilson said.
Iverson said it was important to remember that only a part of the 0.25% sales tax will go to fund the transit service. The rest will be applied to transportation-related items like roads, trails and other infrastructure.
It may also take between three and six months before the tax is officially implemented following the county’s pending adoption of the local option sales tax, Iverson said.
What legislation revived, voters once killed
The 0.25% sales tax was originally put to county voters during the 2016 election cycle. Known as Proposition 1, it failed with 28,986 votes to 26,311.
Read more: Prop 1 dies amid updated election results
Among those who opposed the proposed tax hike was Larry Meyers, head of the Dixie Republican Forum, a private group not affiliated with the county or state GOP. At the time he said the local governments should learn to do more with the money they have.
His opinion hasn’t changed.
“I remain opposed to any tax increases. We already carry a heavy tax burden,” Meyers said. “Road construction is a proper role of county government, but I don’t think increasing taxes isn’t the way to do it.”
According to its 2018 legislative scorecard, the Utah Taxpayers Association stood opposed to SB 136, the legislation that created the local sales tax option being embraced by county and municipal officials.
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