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Sales tax hike proposed to provide UTA services in Morgan

Article Date: 
4 April, 2014 (All day)

If Morgan voters approve a sales tax increase in November, UTA could be coming to the county, but not in their traditional big buses.  In response to a November request from the Morgan County Council, the Utah Transit Authority has proposed unique transportation options for the county.
“We looked at all the options and things that have been done previously to try to tailor something to meet your community’s need,” said Ryan Taylor, coordinated mobility manager with UTA.
The UTA board of trustees and general manager said that although the county has a high percentage of commuting residents, Morgan needed something other than regular commuter bus service.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2011 Economic Census, 23 percent of Morgan residents commute outside of the county for employment.
UTA’s proposal includes a “hybrid” service combining vanpool and commuter services, something that has not been done anywhere else in the state, Taylor said.
“When people think of UTA, they think of our big buses,” Taylor said.  “That is an expensive service for us to run, and the sales tax (increase) wouldn’t provide a lot of trips or seats for the community.  There is a high expense, but unfortunately not a high amount of ridership.  It is expensive to do in rural communities.”
UTA applied lessons they have learned in rural areas such as southern Utah County, Park City and Tooele to their plan for Morgan.
With an estimated 70 to 80 riders per day, “a regular big bus option is not the best option for you,” Taylor told the Morgan County Council Tuesday.
UTA’s newly created option for Morgan is called the “community transportation program,” that combines the best of vanpool, community shuttle, commuter transit service, volunteer driver program and travel vouchers. Using this program, UTA would hire someone from Morgan to run a program directly in the community in response to specific transportation needs.
Taylor called it a “hybrid vanpool commuter transit service” that would be coordinated locally.  The program would reduce the number of transfers compared to other UTA services currently being offered, reducing travel time and increasing convenience.
Currently, there are three van pools operating in Morgan.  The vans take commuters from Morgan to both Hill Air Force Base and North Salt Lake.  The new program would expand on that idea, taking Morgan residents to popular locations such as downtown Ogden, Salt Lake, Clearfield (Hill Air Force Base), and Weber State/McKay Dee Hospital while connecting to other UTA services such as Frontrunner and express buses.
The program would require between four to eight vans.  UTA would use sales tax revenue to pay for the van, fuel, maintenance, insurance and a back-up van Monday through Friday.  
Another element is the community shuttle program, which would provide trips on demand daily.  This could help the elderly attend doctors appointments, making them “less of a burden on their friends and neighbors,” said Ali Oliver, with the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
The plan keeps “an eye out to the future for the growth that will happen in this community,” Taylor said.  He expects the program to grow in popularity as more residents find out about it.
“It could grow as population grows, as the popularity of the program grows,” he said.  “We could add resources that could be nimble and adapt to your community.”
To receive these services, Morgan would have to officially be annexed into UTA following specific steps and guidelines, including a local option sales tax increase.  If approved by voters, the tax increase would increase one-fourth to one-half of one cent per dollar of sales tax.  
Oliver pointed out that Morgan residents already pay this tax when they shop in Weber and Davis counties.
The increase could generate between $223,843 and $447,686 for Morgan County to spend on transit.  Morgan County would be the authority over the monies, which would be held in a restricted fund.  Any extra money collected could be “banked” for future capital expenses such as new vans or buses, Taylor said.
Although an average UTA bus fare is $2.50, Taylor said fares in Morgan are yet to be determined.
“Since this is a new service, we want to explore a fair fare,” he said.
Taylor said in Park City, “big bus” fares one way from Park City to Salt Lake County are about $5.50.  For another $5.50 return trip, total one-day costs to commute via UTA are $11 a day.
At those prices and the amount of travel time required, “it is difficult to compete with the convenience of an automobile,” he said.  Taylor estimates that a commuter bus going up and down the canyon between Morgan and Ogden would require a similar fare.  Van fares are expected to be lower.
But some councilmembers said they would rather have that figured out before going to the voters.
“I know that it will all be ironed out, but we need so much more information before going out to the public saying we are going to raise sales tax,” said Councilman Ned Mecham, who cast the only opposing vote Tuesday night.  “Most people are iffy on it.”
Other council members are excited to get feedback from the community before making the final decision to include a sales tax increase on the November ballot.
“The council has been working on this for three years, and determined there is a need,” Councilwoman Tina Kelley said.  “We feel strongly we should move forward and take this to the people to vote on.”
“With this proposal, we have a lot more options and services than just a simple commuter service down the canyon and back up,” Councilman Lyle Nelson said.  “UTA has really looked at some major changes in the way they do business and come up with a phenomenal approach to our needs in this county with limited population.”
Nelson said the council weighed the option of creating their own transportation program, paying the manager and vehicle maintenance expenses themselves.  “With this option, UTA would take on all of that and give us the best of all possible scenarios that is scalable to our needs.”
Kelley said UTA’s proposal “made sense” and didn’t require ironing out agreements with Morgan City or an additional county employee.
UTA is planning public hearings on the program tentatively in May and July.