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MIDVALE — "Vote 'yes' to fix potholes," a sign read during the launch of a campaign Thursday urging voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase that will appear on the ballot in 16 Utah counties this fall.
Utahns for Responsible Transportation Investments joined with a dozen local mayors and business leaders outside Midvale City Hall to promote the proposed tax hike. The political issues committee, affiliated with the Salt Lake Chamber, was specifically created to raise money to campaign for Proposition 1.
If voters approve the measure, it will increase sales taxes — excluding food purchases — by a penny for every $4 spent to generate revenue to fund local transportation.
Forty percent of the tax money would go to the Utah Transit Authority in the six counties the agency serves. The remaining funds would go to county and city budgets for local road projects.
"Proposition 1 is vitally important, not only to our local communities, but to our entire region," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said, noting that all 16 cities in the county have passed resolutions supporting the ballot measure.
"This overwhelming support to give voters a choice in saying 'yes' to Proposition 1 highlights just how much our local communities need transportation funding," McAdams said.
But the Proposition 1 campaign did not sit well with Evelyn Everton, Utah director of Americans for Prosperity, a group that opposes the tax. Everton said it's "concerning" that elected officials have turned to using taxpayer-funded facilities and their time to campaign for a tax increase.
"But I do think … taxpayers will see through their marketing ploys and just see Proposition 1 for what it really is, and that's just more money taken out of their family budgets," she said.
HB362, passed this year by the Utah Legislature, allows the proposed sales tax to be placed on the ballot to address a statewide deficit for transportation projects and maintenance.
A recent Utah League of Cities and Towns study shows a more than 60 percent gap between local transportation needs and current allocation of road funds, resulting in statewide deterioration of local roads.
HB362 will raise Utah's fuel tax by 5 cents per gallon starting Jan. 1, which will generate an estimated $25 million in 2016 and $76 million in 2017. If voters approve the local tax statewide, it would generate more than $145 million by 2017, which legislative analysts estimate could cost an average person between $40 and $50 per year.
Pointing to the gas tax and a $75 million property tax increase also passed earlier this year, Everton said Utahns are already facing a large amount of tax increases this year.
But Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson said the reason county and city officials across the state are standing in support of the tax increase is because it's a fiscally responsible investment.
"This is the conservative thing to do. This is the right thing to do," Gibson said. "To pay our bills as we go … (and) make sure that we are not passing that burden on to our children and grandchildren for years into the future."
Ron Jibson, co-chairman of Utahns for Responsible Transportation and CEO of Questar Gas, said "the cost of doing nothing is far higher for the average Utah family."
"Just like brushing our teeth prevents cavities and prevents dental work, every dollar invested in maintaining a road now saves up to $25 of costly reconstruction work in the future," Jibson said.
Orem Mayor Richard Brunst said many Utah cities' transportation budgets are coming up short in a time of "explosive growth" in Utah.
McAdams said revenue from the tax increase will help regional connectivity by funding mass transit. UTA has "committed to provide our communities with more buses, more service, more often," he said.
In a resolution passed Wednesday, the transit agency vowed to use the funds for more frequent service, longer service hours, and additional weekend service, with an emphasis on enhancing bus service.
Christopher Stout, president of the Utah Transit Riders Union, said UTA's resolution did not include a specific enough plan to instill trust in voters, who still may be "leery" of the agency's past spending. Last year, a state audit pointed to several questionable business practices, including extravagant vacations, high salaries and generous bonuses.
"We really just want a guarantee that the tax increase will be spent on service only," Stout said. "But that guarantee isn't there."
The 16 counties that will be placing the proposed sales tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot are: Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele, Uintah, Beaver, Box Elder, Grand, Juab, Morgan, Carbon, San Juan, Sevier, Duchesne and Sanpete.