Resolution on how to fund Ogden BRT project proving difficult

Wednesday , December 13, 2017 - 5:00 AM5 comments

MITCH SHAW, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Local elected officials agree — the Ogden bus rapid transit project is of monumental importance for Northern Utah.

But finding consensus on how to pay for the multimillion-dollar undertaking is another story.

On Tuesday, the Weber County Commission approved $21 million in funding for 11 county transportation projects recently recommended by the Weber Area Council of Governments (WACOG) — a body made up of representatives from the county and the individual municipalities within it.

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The projects are to be funded through the county's local transportation fund.

The passing measure came with an important caveat: tabling final approval for the Ogden bus rapid transit (BRT). The project was included on the list but does not include a recommendation for funding. The Utah Transit Authority is asking the county to contribute $6 million to the BRT, but members of WACOG have been leery of the request.

At their meeting earlier this month, WACOG voted 14-3 against funding the project at UTA's requested level. Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell, Ogden City Council Chair Marcia White and Weber Commissioner Jim Harvey were the only board members to vote for the funding.

The proposed BRT system would begin at Ogden’s Intermodal Transit Center at 2350 Wall Avenue, weave its way through downtown and east-central Ogden, before linking to Weber State University and a planned intermodal transit hub at the Dee Events Center.

McKay-Dee Hospital would be the last, southernmost stop on the route.

The plan has been discussed and studied for more than a decade. According to Ogden City Council documents, an Ogden/WSU transit study commenced in November 2004. The first iteration of the project called for a streetcar system, an option that was deemed too expensive when the council voted for BRT nearly two years ago.

The BRT project is estimated to cost $60-$70 million. Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell said if an application for federal funding is approved, the Federal Transit Administration would pay for approximately 65 percent of the project, leaving a matching local contribution of 35 percent.

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WACOG has already committed $2.5 million for the final design, with the Wasatch Front Regional Council and UTA committing $1.5 million and $1 million respectively. That money, combined with the requested $6 million from Weber County, a $6 million match from UTA and certain right-of-way donations, would account for the needed local match, Caldwell said.

The mayor said the project will spur economic development, help improve regional air quality and provide valuable service to WSU and the hospital. He said a comprehensive application must be submitted to the FTA by spring. If not, federal funding is at risk of being lost for good.

"The word we're getting is that the window for this kind of funding is closing quickly," Caldwell said. "If we don't have a comprehensive application ready to go in the next few months, we're going to lose our shot at this."

But North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor and other members of WACOG say UTA's price is too steep and the transit agency should be responsible for a bigger portion or perhaps all of the $6 million it's asking from Weber County.

"The BRT is important — we like the project, we support the project and we believe it's important for economic growth in Weber County," Taylor said. "There's just a lot of concern about using transportation funds from the county."

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Taylor said the county's transportation fund is "scarce and limited" and UTA should use their recent Prop 1 funding injection to pay for the project. Passed by voters in November 2015, the Prop 1 ballot initiative provides UTA and counties that approved it with annual dollars for new projects.

According to Taylor, who sits on the UTA Board, the transit agency now gets just under $4 million per year in Prop 1 funds. The fund is projected to generate over $100 million over the next 20 years, Taylor said.

"This (BRT) project seems to be something Prop 1 was made for," he said.

The mayor also said UTA has previously agreed to fully fund a similar project in Utah County with the Provo/Orem BRT.

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Caldwell said that decision was made years ago, under a very different UTA governance model. He said the landscape has changed and it's unrealistic to rely on UTA to fully fund the Ogden project.

"In my opinion, that's a really dangerous game of chicken," Caldwell said.

After some lengthy dialogue on Tuesday, Harvey and commissioners Kerry Gibson and James Ebert all voted to approve WACOG's funding request, while agreeing to spend the next several months negotiating the final BRT funding amount. Harvey also wanted additional data on a $10 million road project on west 12th Street.

The commission hopes to have a decision on the BRT by June.

Caldwell and Taylor both said they were optimistic a resolution will be reached.

You can reach reporter Mitch Shaw at mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23 or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/MitchShaw.StandardExaminer.  

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