Salt Lake County received a blessing of sorts from legislative leaders on Tuesday to move ahead with a vote whether to fund TRAX, commuter rail and some road projects with tax dollars approved by voters last year.
But political maneuvering could change how the rail lines are funded, and it seems to hinge on an idea being discussed by political insiders to somehow use the lines as leverage against a possible future lawsuit over the Mountain View Corridor.
Mountain View is a proposed $2 billion highway planned to run through Salt Lake and Utah counties. The Sierra Club and other groups that successfully sued to temporarily halt work on the Legacy Parkway in Davis County have hinted about a possible lawsuit against Mountain View, as well.
During a meeting Tuesday of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee, Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said he wondered whether funding the rail lines should be a higher priority than protecting the Mountain View Corridor from a possible lawsuit.
"It appears we're headed for litigation on that, and nobody wants to give any credit for the rail projects in Salt Lake County," Killpack said. "I don't have an issue with the rail lines ... but I wonder if we're stepping back and looking at the whole picture in terms of the taxpayers in general."
West Valley Mayor Dennis Nordfelt responded to Killpack by saying members of the expanded Salt Lake County Council of Governments were reviewing ways to ensure Mountain View is built without litigation delays.
"I think we'll have a plan by the 26th that will be presented to the expanded COG that will accomplish that," Nordfelt said in response to Killpack's concerns about Mountain View. "If the plan is successful and COG approves it, it won't be the same decision we made in December."
The COG is scheduled during a Nov. 26 meeting to take a second vote on whether the transit lines should be funded. The group is made up of 17 Salt Lake County mayors and the nine members of the Salt Lake County Council. Last December, it agreed to fund two TRAX lines, commuter rail, the Mountain View Corridor and I-80 with voter-approved tax dollars.
A legislative audit last month, however, said the COG used a faulty and biased process to select those projects for funding. Nordfelt, who is also COG chairman, agreed to take a revote on the funding issue. He was meeting with legislative leaders Tuesday to clarify how the revote should be done and whether money could be given to fund operation and maintenance costs for commuter rail.
Marc Heileson, regional representative of the Sierra Club, said Tuesday his group would follow a public process for how to express opposition against the Mountain View road, before even considering a lawsuit. An environmental study for the proposed highway is now open for public comment, and the Sierra Club plans to submit comment, Heileson said.
He also said he would be surprised if any tweaks were made to the funding process to protect Mountain View. Voters clearly wanted the rail lines to be funded, he said."It's the people's transit," he said. "They wanted it, they voted for it, and more importantly, they're paying for it. Why would anyone want to interfere with what the public wants and wants to pay for? It doesn't make sense."