The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Authority announced Tuesday the award a federal grant, worth about $75 million, to the Utah Transit Authority for its bus rapid transit project.
The BRT line will connect Provo and Orem in a 10.5-mile bus line. The line will start at the Orem Central Station to the west of Utah Valley University and run to the East Bay Technology Park in south Provo. It has 18 stops along the way, including UVU, Brigham Young University, both malls in Orem and Provo, and the Provo Central Station. Both Orem and Provo will have stations that feature connections to FrontRunner and regular bus routes.
The $75 million grant will go toward the total cost of the $150 million construction project, also known as the Provo-Orem Transportation Improvement Project.
“The Provo-Orem BRT line will help create new connections for residents, commuters, and students and faculty traveling to and from the universities and Provo’s bustling downtown,” said Carolyn Flowers, FTA acting administrator. “This new transportation option will serve an area that is seeing significant job growth, and help the two cities limit traffic congestion and reduce their environmental footprint even as their populations increase.”
According to a release from the UTA, projects accepted into the highly competitive Capital Investment Grant program, through which the grant was awarded, go through a multi-year, multi-step process according to requirements in law to be eligible for and to receive program funds.
The BRT project has been a major source of contention among many of the cities’ residents who have maintained the construction project should have been a ballot issue. The petitioners believe Provo and Orem officials violated the Utah Constitution by refusing to accept their referendum petition.
A suit against Orem and Provo has been filed by said petitioners at the Fourth District Court, requesting the referendum be put on the November 2017 ballot. The cities maintain the 50-year lease agreements with UTA are administrative and can't legally be referred to voters.
Frank Anderson, one of the petitioners filing against Provo, said the local issuance of bonds can potentially be a setback to the taxpayer.
"Utah County is going to bond $65 million to a project that is most likely going to be stopped," he said. "That money will go towards paying for the bonds rather than building roads and other things. The idea that it doesn’t cost tax dollars is circular logic."
The petitioners previously sought a writ from the Utah Supreme Court, but the high court declined to halt the project and ruled in October that the group should have first taken the matter to district court.
Anderson said he and the other petitioners will press on in local court.
The BRT line has been under construction for several months and according to UTA, is designed to improve transportation for transit, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
Anderson said none of the current construction is irreversible or permanently alters the roads and infrastructure surrounding roads. However, Anderson said major construction by UTA should wait until after November 2017.
"None of what they’re doing is irreversible. The only thing they’re doing now are things that wouldn’t be a permanent loss," he said. "However, if they tear up downtown (Provo), at that point, I don’t know what UTA would do."
Construction is anticipated to be completed by late 2018 and UTA estimates more than 11,000 passenger trips will be provided on an average weekday in the BRT opening year of 2019.
“I am appreciative of the FTA award. There are many cities in the U.S. that have applied for this grant, and there are only a small number that are given out. Mass transit will be important for our community now and in the future,” said Richard Brunst, Orem mayor.
“The bus rapid transit project is one of the pieces we feel continues to answer the greater transportation needs in Utah County,” said John Curtis, Provo mayor.
Commissioners sustain fines
Unrelated to the federal funding for the project, the Utah County Board of Commissioners made a decision on Tuesday to uphold fines levied by Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson against Corey Norman, public information officer for Provo and Steven Downs, public information officer for Orem.
The fines were levied by Thompson based on emails Norman and Downs sent which allegedly advocated for the BRT project, violating the state's Political Activities of Public Entities Act by reportedly using public resources to advocate for BRT.
The Political Activities of Public Entities Act was passed by the Utah Legislature in 2015 and prohibits “a person from sending an email using the email of a public entity to advocate for or against a ballot proposition.”
Downs and Norman appealed the fines to the County Commission, with attorneys from both cities arguing that since there was no ballot proposition at the time the emails were sent, Thompson had no legal basis to administer the $250 fines.
County attorneys counter-argued that because the process of getting a referendum on the ballot had begun, the fines were valid.
The three commissioners discussed the issue in closed session before voting 2-1 to uphold Thompson's decision on the matter.
Commissioners Bill Lee and Greg Graves voted to uphold Thompson's decision, while Commissioner Larry Ellertson voted against.
Graves has stated at previous hearings that he does not believe the commission has authority to make that decision, and that appeals to Thompson's decision should be made in district court.
Downs said that Orem intends to pursue the matter in court, but expressed frustration that he was not notified that the decision was taking place Tuesday.
In a hearing two weeks ago, Graves and Lee both indicated that they would recuse themselves from the issue.
"They didn't even give me the common courtesy (of notifying me)," Downs said. "We were under the impression they had recused themselves and we could take it to district court. So that's frustrating, obviously."
Norman said it will not be solely his decision whether to take the matter to district court, but said he thinks that Provo's message on the topic will not change.
"The burden of proof is on the county," Norman said. "Until they can prove there's a ballot proposition, my guess is we'll fight this."