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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Sen. Howard Stephenson speaks to his colleagues during the special session.

Salt Lake County residents will get to vote this November on a sales tax hike to pay for new road, airport or transit projects, while the rest of the state will get the option next year.

What's unclear is which projects in Salt Lake County will get the money: new TRAX lines, commuter rail or roads. County leaders are meeting this week to determine the mix. And it's likely to be a fight.

What is clear is that a property tax increase to pay for those projects won't happen after the Legislature approved HB4001 with a super-majority during its Tuesday special session. Instead, the bill allows counties across the state to levy an additional quarter of a cent sales tax to pay for transportation projects.

While a quarter of those monies must be used to preserve future routes for roads, the remaining revenue could pay for projects ranging from transit to airports.

That newly created funding mechanism is a "paradigm shift" because it recognizes that Utah's transportation problems will be better solved when projects are considered on a broader, regional scale, said Rep. Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, the sponsor of HB4001.

"We are no longer saying that we should have separate silos for roads, airports and transit," she said. "This puts all of the issues on the table at the same time ... it allows us to see which project gets us the best bang for the taxpayer dollar."

The super-majority vote — 55-19 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate — was needed to allow Salt Lake County to put the sales tax initiative on November's ballot and replace the current proposal for an $895 million property tax bond. County leaders must also spell out to voters what projects the tax hike will finance.

The tight deadline puts pressure on initiative supporters, who will only have about a month to sell voters on the approximately $1.2 billion bond, but they remained confident about their chances.

"The momentum is there, and if we do the job right, I'm convinced we'll be supported," said Mike Allegra, chief capital development officer for the Utah Transit Authority.

But the agency isn't likely to get all the transit projects it wants with the sales tax initiative. The agency has been pushing to build four new TRAX lines — to Draper, South Jordan, West Valley and the Salt Lake International Airport — but will likely have to postpone one or more of those routes.

That is because some of the sales tax money must be used to buy land for road projects like the proposed Mountain View Corridor, a freeway that would connect western Salt Lake and Utah counties. And with Utah County leaders pushing a ballot initiative to fund commuter rail though their county, Salt Lake County leaders have said that commuter rail is a higher priority in their county as well.

The Salt Lake County Council is holding a special meeting Thursday to change the ballot language from the existing property tax bond to the new sales tax levy. In private discussions, council members have said that the Draper line is furthest behind in terms of environmental studies and could be an option to be postponed, said Councilman Michael Jensen.

But "it is what it is," he added. "Let the chips fall where they may."

Beyond this year's election, the bill would provide a mechanism for all of Utah's 29 counties to address their transportation issues on a much more local level, since they would be able to bring in revenue earmarked for their county. That could mean anything from constructing new roads to handling suburban growth to upgrading airports to allow more commercial air travel, said Mike Mower, spokesman for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

"This allows counties and county voters to decide what transportation projects merit a sales tax increase," he said.

Southern Utah legislators were especially interested in the airport funding because it could allow St. George to build a new, $200 million airport that would ideally bring in more regional commercial airlines.

Although the bill passed with strong support, it still had enough detractors to prolong debates for more than five hours in the House and Senate. Opponents were critical of such a significant change being done during a one-day special session and were skeptical that a sales tax increase was the best way to fund transportation.

"I say by jove, if this is so darned important, why don't these people just decide," Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said. "If it's that good and the public is so supportive of it, why should we waste time in an election? I don't see any real need to rush this through and not give people a chance to think about it."


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com; jloftin@desnews.com