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Groups contending that Provo and Orem illegally rejected voter referendums that sought to block a controversial transit project appealed Friday directly to the Utah Supreme Court, and asked for an expedited review.
They said quick, final court action is needed to prevent those cities and the Utah Transit Authority from "expending substantial public funds" on the project that could make any later vote on their referendums moot.
The groups are trying to stop a $190 million "bus rapid transit" (BRT) system in Provo and Orem proposed by the UTA.
They seek to overturn no-cost leases recently approved by both city councils to allow use of some streets for the project. The cities, however, contend those leases are "administrative actions" and not the sort of new city laws that the Utah Constitution allows residents to challenge through referendum.
The citizen groups contend the Utah Constitution considers any action approved by a city council as subject to possible referendum. It said a law that excludes interlocal agreements from possible referendums is an improper restriction on their constitutional rights.
"The BRT referendum petition meets all the legal requirements to be placed on the ballot. Sufficient signatures were gathered, and verified by the Utah County Clerk," the petition says. It asks the court to order putting the question on the ballot in November 2017.
Two weeks ago, the UTA Board approved launching the controversial project immediately by gambling up to $23.8 million in advance funding that it says federal and county governments will almost surely reimburse later.
The referendum groups complained that UTA is trying to speed work so that voters would be less willing to stop it after large amounts have been spent.
UTA countered that starting now before expected federal grants have been awarded and expected county bonds are issued could save $3 million to $5 million in construction costs.
The referendum groups contend the project is too expensive, will complicate car traffic and won't attract enough riders to justify its cost. They say thwarting the city street leases could stop the project by putting federal grants in jeopardy.
However, Acting UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said two weeks ago that even if referendums were successful, they would not kill the project. He said that would alter only small portions of the project where city streets are used, not the major stretches on state highways.
UTA has long said that it would like the BRT buses to begin operating in spring 2018.
The BRT system would use extra-long buses and have bus-only lanes for about half their 10.5 mile route. Buses may receive priority at traffic signals and would arrive about every six minutes at peak times. BRT buses would run between FrontRunner stations in Provo and Orem.