Big lobbying push coming for transportation money in Utah
Money • $27 billion shortfall expected for expansion of train lines, rebuilding of highway.
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Provo • Utah business leaders, with assists from transportation agencies, are planning a big lobbying effort to persuade lawmakers and the public to fund an expected $27 billion shortfall over the next 30 years for mass transit and highway needs.

They envision the effort as similar to pushes a few years ago that led to sales tax hikes and borrowing that allowed finishing by 2013 projects that once were not expected until 2030 — such as expanded TRAX and FrontRunner lines, and rebuilding Interstate 15 in Utah County.

Robin Riggs, former executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber, heads the new business-funded Utah Mobility Coalition, which is planning the lobbying effort. He outlined its goals Friday to the Utah Transit Authority board during a planning retreat in Provo.

Riggs noted that UTA, the Utah Department of Transportation and planning agencies statewide recently completed a unified transportation plan for projects through 2040 — outlining the future freeways, highways, TRAX expansions and bus rapid transit needed to handle an expected 1.4 million more Wasatch Front residents by that year.

"There is a $27 billion shortfall between what they think will come in additional revenue and what the needs are," he told the UTA board. "I'm not here to tell you we are going to get $27 billion out of the Legislature. But we've got to make a start on it."

He said his coalition is led by businesses and chambers of commerce that see investment in transportation as critical to growth and prosperity. He said it is funding studies to help it make its case by looking at the economic impact of investing in transportation and how it may be funded.

A handout that Riggs gave to the UTA board said the coalition plans to make "the case that economic prosperity comes from robust, stable and long-term investment in mobility infrastructure," and then to "lobby the hell out of it!"

To demonstrate economic growth from such investments, the UTA board heard Jonathan Francom, an executive with Adobe Systems, tell how his company chose Lehi as the site for a new office campus because it is close to a new FrontRunner station and adjacent to an improved I-15.

"Adobe wants to be a flagship of mass transit utilization," he told the board. He added that long-range plans call for TRAX to come to the site, "and we would like to do anything we could to accelerate that."

UTA General Manager Michael Allegra said officials could argue that sales taxes supporting mass transit are lower along the Wasatch Front than in similar cities nationwide.

It is currently 0.6875 cent per $1 in sales in Salt Lake County; 0.55 cent in Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties; and 0.526 cent in Utah County. In comparison, Allegra said it is 2 cents per $1 in Los Angeles; 1.25 cents in Boston; and 1 cent in such cities as Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston and New Orleans.

Natalie Gochnour, executive vice president and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, told the board the economy gives mixed signals about how well it can handle increases in fares or taxes for transit.

On the down side, she said, 81,300 Utahns are unemployed — and that does not count people so discouraged that they no longer are actively looking for jobs. "So you have a lot of people hurting," she said. On the other hand, Utah has the fourth-fastest-growing economy among the states and is in better shape economically than most.

Greg Hughes, a legislator who is also chairman of the UTA board, said the state cannot afford to allow gridlock in transportation. He said it could lead new industries to go elsewhere and hurt quality of life.

ldavidson@sltrib.com