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Two groups of Orem and Provo residents are striving to put referendums on the ballot to stop a controversial "bus rapid transit" (BRT) system in their cities — but some officials say the efforts may not be legal.

The groups filed papers with both city recorders, seeking required permission to start a petition process. The efforts could let voters decide whether to overturn votes by the city councils Tuesday that gave 50-year, no-cost leases to the Utah Transit Authority to use some city streets for such things as bus-only lanes and space needed for BRT stations.

The Provo City Council approved its lease on a 5-2 vote a week after overflow crowds spent 3½ hours urging rejection of the lease and transit project that many argued is too expensive and unneeded. The Orem City Council approved it 6-0.

State law allows residents to overturn new city ordinances if they can gather enough signatures within 45 days of council action to get on the ballot. A majority of city voters is needed to approve the action.

Worrying about such a challenge, the Provo Council on Tuesday asked its attorney, Brian Jones, if it would be legal.

Jones said residents could challenge only new laws or ordinances. He said the lease was essentially an administrative action, and he believes it could not be undone by referendum.

But Councilman George Stewart, a former Provo mayor, disagrees. He said the legislative general counsel's office previously wrote that councils such as Provo's are purely legislative and have no executive powers. "We only have legislative powers," Stewart said, which means council actions can be legally challenged by referendums.

Orem City Attorney Greg Stephens said his office is reviewing the matter and expects to decide next week about whether the referendum there will be allowed to proceed.

The Utah Legislature just enacted a law that would have given petitioners more time to gather signatures, but it does not take effect until May 10.

That new law would give petitioners 45 days to gather names from the date that cities declare a referendum effort legal. Currently, the law gives petitioners 45 days from passage of the action they are challenging — so time spent by the city to review the petition counts against the referendum organizers' clock.

Jennifer Baptista, who leads the referendum effort in Orem, said her group believes it is legal and may fight the city in court if it is blocked.

She figures the group needs about 3,800 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

Baptista said her group is fighting BRT because buses now have low ridership, so opponents see no need for the $190 million BRT that would bring even bigger buses.

"We see it more as helping some developers," she said.

"UTA should welcome the opportunity for us to vote on their project," Baptista said. "If bus rapid transit is good for all, let's put it up to a vote and see what the people of Orem decide."

Stewart said if BRT had gone to a vote of Provo residents in the first place, "it would not have passed."

BRT would have extra-long buses travel on bus-only lanes for about half their 10.5-mile Provo-Orem route. Passengers would buy tickets from machines before boarding, and buses have extra doors to speed entry. Buses may receive priority at traffic signals, and they will arrive about every six minutes at peak times.

Construction is scheduled to begin this summer — before any referendum would appear on the November ballot.

BRT is scheduled to start operation in spring 2018. It will operate on major roads such as University Parkway and University Avenue to connect FrontRunner stations in Provo and Orem via Utah Valley University, University Mall, Brigham Young University, downtown Provo and the Provo Towne Centre mall.