Money for TRAX lines and commuter rail was delayed once again Thursday as Salt Lake County elected officials called off a scheduled vote to approve a list of projects promised funding from a tax increase that voters approved last year.
The meeting was canceled to buy time to meet with the Legislature later this month and answer lingering questions about rules for voting on whether to fund the transportation projects, according to West Valley Mayor Dennis Nordfelt.
But Democrats on the Salt Lake County Council and at least one mayor believe the delay is a ploy by the Legislature to get what it wants, including revenge and more road projects.
"I still think that we as a county, as local governments, are being used by the state Legislature to raise taxes on our citizens, and that they in turn want to push the button on where those funds are spent. That's the issue here," said Taylorsville Mayor Russ Wall, one of 17 mayors on the expanded Salt Lake County Council of Governments (COG).
Salt Lake County Councilman Joe Hatch, who also sits on the expanded COG, pointed out Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, as being one of a handful of legislators delaying the funding process. He said the senator is seeking "payback" because of Salt Lake County environmentalists who delayed construction of the Legacy Parkway in Davis County.
Killpack said he just wants Salt Lake County elected officials to follow the law. A legislative audit last month said the expanded Salt Lake County Council of Governments used a flawed process and faulty math last year when the council promised tax money to the rail lines, reconstruction of Interstate 80 and land purchases for the future Mountain View Corridor.
The math error ranked transit projects significantly higher than roads, with commuter rail ranked No. 2 on a prioritized list of projects available to get funding from the tax hike. Now the math is fixed, and roads far outrank rail.
Lawmakers asked the expanded COG to vote again on the funded projects. That vote now likely won't come until mid-November, after a meeting of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee.
"I don't understand why they're turning this into a spit match," Killpack said about Hatch's remarks. "Let's put this down and get it figured out."
Nordfelt said he wants clarification on whether the tax hike can be used to fund operation and maintenance for commuter rail and whether the prioritization process should be tweaked before a re-vote.
The expanded COG is scheduled to meet again Nov. 26 for the re-vote. The Salt Lake County Council would then have to vote to ratify an agreement with the Utah Transit Authority to allow the agency to use the tax money to pay for construction of two new TRAX lines and commuter rail.
The four Democrats on the County Council wanted to move forward Thursday and finalize the inter-local agreement with UTA based on the list of prioritized projects approved nearly a year ago. However, the five Republicans wanted to wait.
Councilman Michael Jensen said he didn't see the harm in waiting a few weeks, since the project list likely won't change.
"Do I think at the end of the day the same priorities will come out? Absolutely," Jensen said.
The Utah County Commission approved a similar inter-local agreement on Tuesday to direct a sales-tax increase to commuter rail. However, the vote was contingent upon the Salt Lake County Council's approval Thursday of commuter-rail funding.
Since that vote didn't happen, Utah County will have to continue to wait. Utah County Commissioner Larry Ellertson said he hopes the delay won't change the commission's vote."(Our decision) is subject to them getting this all worked out," Ellertson said. "I think we're still on track."
Contributing: Catherine Smith.