I believe Utahns, especially on the Wasatch Front, are wiling to try getting out of their cars in January and February if we give them a system that works. —Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake
SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most substantive "clean air" initiatives pushed by Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker and the Salt Lake Chamber was approved by a legislative committee Wednesday, giving authority for local sales tax increases to fund transportation improvements.
The measure, HB388, does not apply to any extension of light rail but could foster enhanced bus service, more bike routes and other transportation-related options to move people from place to place more efficiently, with less air pollution.
Sponsored by Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, the bill allows cities and counties to put up to a quarter of a cent sales tax increase on a ballot to be approved or rejected by voters.
As the law stands now, cities and counties cannot raise the rate beyond what the state has authorized.
Anderson told members of the House Transportation Committee that instilling that flexibility for local residents could result in immediate air quality benefits, with the potential to take an additional 50,000 cars off the road and increase UTA ridership by 53 percent.
Riverton Mayor Bill Applegarth said the beauty of the bill is that it allows residents who want options the ability to make that choice at the ballot box.
"I am in full support of this and I believe my community is as well," he said.
But doubters such as Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley, said she had concerns the bill would not foster basic improvements like more bus routes and increase frequency of buses along those routes. She was joined by other committee members who stressed UTA needs to fix that transportation problem, which could encourage more ridership from students, people with disabilities and the elderly.
Proponents said the measure is not designed to build a "European style" rail system to the ski resorts, but rather to beef up everyday options to help people access transportation systems.
"I believe Utahns, especially on the Wasatch Front, are wiling to try getting out of their cars in January and February if we give them a system that works," said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake.
But Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, weighed in against the measure because he said it not only allows a tax increase but fosters a patchwork of disparate sales taxes from cities to cities — which ultimately is hard on consumers.
Erin Mendendall, executive director of Breathe Utah, rejected that argument.
"One size does not fit all, particularly when it comes to air quality," she said. "In this case, an optional increase in sales tax would actually serve these residents very well if they choose to have that."