Feb 20, 2015 - 4:30pm

Road Warriors Tackle Salt Lake City Infrastructure

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Salt Lake City Light Rail
A dedicated sales tax referendum campaign lead by Salt Lake City business executives in 2006 resulted in multiple extensions to TRAX, Salt Lake City’s light rail transit system. Photo courtesy of Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce.

The second in an occassional series.

The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake were a tremendous success and gave the city’s leaders a sense of confidence and an appetite to tackle other issues – but it was going to take a concerted effort.

Transportation improvements for roads and transit had been completed for the Olympics, but the master plan for the metro area wouldn’t be completed until 2030 with existing funding sources. That was not good enough for business leadership centered at the Chamber of Commerce.

Lane Beattie, former president of the Utah Senate and a much respected state leader, had become president of the Chamber, and a coalition of business leaders led by urban statesman Scott Anderson, CEO of Zions Bank, saw an opportunity to speed up completion of the region’s transportation plan.

Anderson and Beattie created the 2015 Alliance, which hired professional transportation consultants to verify costs and potential sources. Among several funding alternatives, they concluded that a sales tax would be necessary -- but that would require a referendum that could only be called if the legislature and governor agreed.

It was June 2006, and the legislature wasn’t set to meet until the next year. If they waited, the referendum would be in November 2007. That is when they made the bold decision to seek a special session of the legislature and hold a quick referendum.

They faced a huge obstacle: They needed to convince then-Gov. Jon Huntsman to call a special session and ensure that their proposal – a specially designated sales tax that could be imposed in increments by the vote of citizens in individual counties – was on the agenda.

The governor and the legislature initially resisted the Chamber’s request, arguing that it was too complex for a one-day special session. Anderson and the 2015 Alliance pushed back. And Chamber CEO Lane Beattie responded: “We are not asking them to debate taxes. We are only asking them to allow the citizens of Utah to vote if they would like to have increased transportation services by increasing a small portion of the sales tax on a county-by-county basis.”

Later in June, the Salt Lake County Council joined the Chamber in its call for a special session.

Public support for the early completion of the transportation system was overwhelming, increasing pressure on the governor and the legislature. One Utah Transportation Authority poll indicated that 90 percent of the state’s voters wanted to see the issue on the ballot.

Anderson and Beattie then met with the governor to press the business case for the transportation sales tax. It was important for Huntsman to know that the legislature would not leave him hanging if he included the proposal in his call for a special session; Beattie and Anderson had met with legislative leaders and were able to give him that assurance.

By the end of the hour-long meeting, Anderson says, they were able to convince the governor “that the business community was really serious, that they would provide [political] cover [to both the governor and the legislative leaders], that they would do the advertising to get the initiative passed by the people, and that they would … remember and, you know, reward those who were friendly. So … when the governor said, ‘I’ll do it,’ [the legislative leaders] said, ‘We’ll bring our bodies along.’  But they really were insistent that the business community lead it and that we would have the resources to be able to run a campaign that would let it win.”

Chamber chairman Keith Rattie said Anderson was “very effective with key members of the legislature” at this stage, displaying the perfect characteristics of an Urban Statesmen.

“He has a very low-key, self-effacing way of convincing the guy across the table that the change Scott is advocating was the other guy’s idea,” Rattie said.

When the governor issued a call for a special session on Sept. 15, the sales tax issue was included. Rattie, Anderson, and the rest of the 2015 Alliance crew, again coordinated by Beattie, had a little over six weeks to ensure that the public would pass the measure.

Luckily they were not starting from scratch. Much of the campaign to raise awareness about the transportation issue in general and to lobby for a special legislative session had been conducted in the media, so the public was already aware of both the problem and the proposal to solve it.

The Chamber of Commerce did not stand alone in supporting the initiative.  By the end of October, Proposition 3 had been endorsed by the governor,  U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, all three metro congressional representatives, both the Salt Lake County Republican and Democratic Party chairs, most of the mayors in the county, both major newspapers, the anti-poverty group Utah Issues, and the Sierra Club.

Rattie attributes this broad-based support to the balance between transit and roads in the transportation plan and the business-based approach to defining the issues.

“The Tribune had supported environmental issues and favored transit, so we got a strong endorsement from them,” he said. “Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch and our three representatives met with business leaders and read our study and got on board when Governor Huntsman, state legislators, and the business community gave them cover on the tax issue.  There were lots of good opinion pieces in the papers.”

Also important to the campaign, Rattie said, was that “in the weeks prior we put the business community out there instead of the politicians, and that generated widespread public support.”

On November 7, 2006, Proposition 3 won 64 percent of the vote.  Today, the new transit line to the airport is open and many of the road and transit projects are setting the pace for metro cities and addressing infrastructure challenges.  Current Mayor Ralph Becker has astutely used these improvements to help Salt Lake City successfully compete with other cities while improving the quality of life for his residents.

 

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About the Author

About the Author

At the helm of one of the nation’s most influential chambers of commerce, Sam A.