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Petition organizers who seek to force a public vote on a controversial transit project in Provo and Orem say they gathered far more than the required number of signatures before a deadline on Friday.
But the two cities have said they still plan to reject the petitions, if verified, as illegal.
So petitioners say they are ready to file a legal challenge directly to the state Supreme Court to try to get an item on the ballot. Such a vote would be directed at new city leases with the Utah Transit Authority to allow a $190 million bus rapid transit (BRT) and road improvement project.
"We have enough signatures, with a big cushion," said Frank Anderson, leader of the petition drive in Provo. "But we still have a long fight ahead" with the expected legal battles.
As of Friday morning, the Provo group figured it had collected about 3,800 signatures, while 2,950 were required. It planned to gather and submit even more to the Utah County clerk-auditor's office before the 5 p.m. deadline.
"We are way above the required amount, too," said Orem petition drive organizer Jennifer Baptista. "As of this morning, Orem has 4,700 signatures," while 3,300 were required there. "So we are well beyond the required signatures in both cities."
State law allows residents to challenge new laws passed by city councils if they obtain enough signatures within 45 days of passage to get on the ballot. City councils in Provo and Orem on April 26 approved leases to allow UTA to use city streets for BRT, including for stations and some bus-only lanes.
Provo and Orem officials have said they believe the referendums are illegal, contending that the leases they seek to overturn are administrative actions and not the type of new ordinances that state law allows to be challenged.
However, the cities said Utah Supreme Court decisions make them wait until after signatures are presented to reject them formally.
Scott Hogensen, Utah County chief deputy clerk-auditor, said his office will require perhaps up to a week to verify that petitions had enough signatures from registered voters, and then it will forward the results to the cities.
If cities did not reject them, Hogensen said the issue would appear on the ballot in the next city election which is not until next year. However, UTA officials are starting work on the BRT project this summer.
Anderson complained that citizen groups faced extra hurdles because the cities fought them using public resources emails, meetings and videos which he says is banned by state law. He said Provo set up special "free speech zones" around city facilities that relegated signature gathering to remote spots.
Because of their complaints, Provo Deputy Mayor Corey Norman and Steven Downs, assistant to the Orem city manager, were fined $250 each for misusing city email accounts by Utah County Clerk-Auditor Bryan Thompson. The pair has said they are appealing those fines.
Norman has said the city was trying to educate residents about the effects of the referendum. The cities contend that stopping the leases will not block the BRT project, but only thwart some enhancements the cities had negotiated with UTA. They note that most of the project will be on state highways, not city streets.
Petitioners, however, say blocking the leases could stop BRT because it then would not meet federal cost-sharing formulas. Much of the local match required comes from cities offering use of their property. Without that match, they say $75 million in federal funding could be forfeit, killing the project.
The citizen groups say the BRT is too expensive, would have low ridership and may worsen congestion for other vehicles on the road. UTA plans for BRT to begin operating in spring 2018.
The BRT would connect FrontRunner stations in Provo and Orem via Utah Valley University, University Mall, Brigham Young University, downtown Provo and Provo Towne Centre mall.
Extra-long BRT buses would travel along bus-only lanes for about half their 10.5 mile route. Passengers would buy tickets from machines before boarding, and buses would have extra doors to speed entry. Buses may receive priority at traffic signals, and they would arrive about every six minutes at peak times.