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A petition-gathering group seeking to put a referendum on the ballot against a controversial transit project says Provo is illegally spending tax money to attack its efforts.

The group filed a complaint Friday with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, saying that state law bans cities from spending tax dollars to fight an initiative, but contends Provo is doing so through emails and videos attacking its efforts to stop a "bus rapid transit" (BRT) project in Provo and Orem.

"My taxes, and the taxes of others who are working very hard on the referendum, are being used to fund a campaign which denigrates us, claims we are spreading misinformation and blocks our lawful access to the ballot," wrote Frank Anderson, head of the signature-gathering group.

"This isn't just frustrating and unethical — it appears to be illegal. The city of Provo is certainly a public entity and therefore the law applies," Anderson wrote.

Provo Deputy Mayor Corey Norman disagrees.

"It is the position of the city that we can engage in this because it is an education effort trying to help people understand that this is not a direct vote on stopping the BRT project. This is about a lease agreement," he said.

State law allows residents to overturn new laws passed by city councils if they obtain enough signatures within 45 days of passage to put it on the ballot. Petitioners seek to reverse approval by Provo and Orem of leases to allow the Utah Transit Authority to use city streets for BRT, including stations and bus-only lanes.

Norman said UTA already "can already operate on city streets," so any vote would not stop the project. But "the lease provides the opportunity to do the enhancements that we have been negotiating for the last seven or eight months" to mitigate neighborhood impacts.

The lion's share of the project would operate on state highways — such as University Boulevard and University Parkway — which are not affected by the city leases.

"This has never been about us stopping the group from gathering signatures," said Norman. "It's about making sure the public understands what they're signing."

Provo has already said that it believes the petitions are illegal, but that Utah Supreme Court decisions make the city wait until after signatures are actually presented to formally reject them.

Both Provo and Orem assert that the leases are administrative actions, not new laws, so the state referendum law does not allow a ballot effort to overturn them. Groups in both cities are gathering signatures anyway, fighting a project they say is too expensive and not needed.

"We will continue moving forward, unless a judge tells us otherwise in a formal court proceeding," Anderson said. "The [legal] advice we have received so far gives us confidence to keep gathering signatures."

But Norman calls it a "desperate attempt by a group that is a very vocal minority of Provo and Orem residents."

BRT would have extra-long buses travel along bus-only lanes for about half of their 10.5-mile Provo-Orem 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 will arrive about every six minutes at peak times.

BRT construction is scheduled to begin this summer, and is expected to start operation in spring 2018. It will connect FrontRunner stations in Provo and Orem via Utah Valley University, University Mall, Brigham Young University, downtown Provo and the Provo Towne Centre mall.