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Taboo of interfaith marriage fades as more Utah couples celebrate Easter and Passover

To say it’s been a busy week for Stephen Washburn would be like calling the Cathedral of the Madeleine that pretty church on the corner.

Washburn arrived each day at 4 a.m. at Holladay’s Great Harvest Bread Co., which he owns, to help prepare the usual assortment of whole wheat loaves, baguettes, croissants and rolls (plus challah bread) on top of seasonal items, including hot cross buns, honey bunny centerpieces, and egg-shaped frosted sugar cookies for this weekend’s Easter celebrations.

At the same time, he was readying himself for his family’s Passover meal.

For Washburn, such baking is both professional and personal — he is an Episcopalian; his wife is Jewish.

The couple hosted a Passover seder for friends and family on Saturday night, and Washburn will go alone Sunday morning to Easter services at St. James Episcopal Church in Midvale.

“I am a literal believer in Jesus,” Washburn says, while recognizing that Christianity “got a lot of its practices from Judaism.”

Indeed, the two holidays, which represent the most sacred events in their faiths’ history, have much in common.

For the eight-day Passover tradition, Jews across the globe gather around their tables, eating four symbolic foods and asking four symbolic questions, to commemorate their ancient escape from the angel of death. Christians celebrate a holy week, culminating in Easter Sunday’s ritual remembering of their Savior’s triumph over the grave.

Passover and Easter don’t always align so closely on the calendar (and Eastern Orthodox Christians typically have a different date for their holiday; this year it is April 28), but they are inescapably connected.

After all, the original Christians were Jesus-believing Jews, who saw the Last Supper described in the New Testament as a Passover seder.

In subsequent centuries, the two faiths retained many similarities but split into sometimes bitter opponents with distinct priorities. “Passover and Easter diverge fundamentally,” writes Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “While both festivals are about delivery from a state of despair, be it slavery or sin, Passover heralds the birth of the Jewish people as a force for good in the comity of nations. In contrast, Easter assures the individual Christian life eternal.”

Schorsch adds: “Passover summons Jews collectively into the world to repair it; Easter proffers a way out of a world beyond repair.”

These days, though, couples like the Washburns coexist with both traditions.

“I would never proselytize,” Stephen says, “but I do talk about my Christian perspective and share how I feel.”

The Utah husband and wife are hardly alone in their multifaith marriage or in the way they adapt and accommodate each other’s rituals.

Acceptable intertwining

Unlike decades ago, fewer Americans today believe that marrying within one’s religion is important, according to Pew’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study.

“Almost 4 in 10 Americans (39 percent) who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group,” Pew reported. “By contrast, only 19 percent of those who wed before 1960 report being in a religious intermarriage.”

Many of these marriages (18 percent) are between a Christian and a religiously unaffiliated spouse, the report said. “Interfaith relationships are even more common today (49 percent) among unmarried people living with a romantic partner.”

In addition, the number of Americans raised in interfaith homes “appears to be growing,” another Pew report found. “Fully one-quarter of young adults in the millennial generation (27 percent) say they were raised in a religiously mixed family.”

Despite these faith gaps, nearly three-quarters of those raised by parents from different religious backgrounds say their parents “disagreed little, if at all, about religion,” it said. “And most people who are in religiously mixed marriages today say it is uncommon for them to have religious disagreements with their spouse.”

Years ago, though, marrying outside one’s faith could cause deep hurt and even rejection from family and a religious community.

Just ask Maxine and Marvin Turner.

A bris, not a baptism

(Rick Egan  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)    Marvin and Maxine Turner.  Maxine was Greek Orthodox and her husband, Marv, was Jewish. Then she converted to Judaism, but retains deep ties to her Christian clan. Friday, April 19, 2019.
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marvin and Maxine Turner. Maxine was Greek Orthodox and her husband, Marv, was Jewish. Then she converted to Judaism, but retains deep ties to her Christian clan. Friday, April 19, 2019. (Rick Egan/)

Maxine and Marvin met a year after she graduated from Salt Lake City’s Highland High School in the late 1960s, and he was a senior at East. Maxine had come to East as a university student studying education, and Marvin was in a class she attended. She mispronounced his name, he teased her, and thus began a romance that continues today.

Marvin is Jewish; Maxine was Greek Orthodox.

Marvin’s family members were open-minded and liberal, easily embracing their future daughter-in-law, but Maxine’s parents were less than pleased at the match.

“They had a Greek priest come to Maxine’s house to rid it of evil spirits [because of me],” he recalls. “I remember walking behind her family, following the priest going from room to room, swinging that smoking lamp on a chain, and giving the sign of the cross.”

Obviously, Marvin says with a chuckle, it didn’t work.

When the two married in 1970, they found a Utah Supreme Court justice to officiate, since no rabbi or priest would have been allowed to participate.

But families and friends from both sides were there to join in the couple’s joy.

Shortly into their 49-year marriage, Maxine decided to convert to Judaism. She took religious classes and went through the necessary steps. It was not because Marvin pressured her, but because her own former priest had said marrying a Jew meant she would not be able to have an Orthodox burial or other rites for her children.

She wanted her kids to have, Maxine says, “a sound religious upbringing.”

Because a child’s Jewish identity comes through the female line — “You always know who the mother is but not always the father,” she says — she wanted to do that for her kids.

So when the first child was born, a son, they had a bris for him (traditional circumcision) rather than a baptism as the Orthodox do.

“It was a trauma for my parents,” Maxine recalls.

Eventually, Maxine’s family softened, Marvin says. “Her parents opened up when they saw how much in love we were. I became the son they never had.”

And, though the children — two boys and a girl — were reared as Jews, including having bar and bat mitzvahs, the family also spent Easter and other holidays with Maxine’s Greek family.

The Turners would do Passover meals with their Jewish kin, and then enjoy Easter services as well as dine on lamb and red-roasted eggs with the Orthodox grandparents, aunts and uncles.

“We were a two-religion family,” Marvin says.

As their parents aged, first Maxine’s father died and then Marvin’s mother, the two remaining in-laws ended up across the hall from each other in the same Millcreek care center.

A rabbi would visit Marvin’s father, then converse and bless Maxine’s mother. Same process in reverse for the Greek Orthodox priest.

“Two very strong cultures came together,” she says, “to better understand each other.”

And their kids?

Their two sons married Protestants and their daughter married a Catholic — under a traditional Jewish canopy but with her grandparents’ Orthodox wedding crowns on the altar.

What Maxine and Marvin, who work together at Cuisine Unlimited Catering, see in today’s young people is “total acceptance of different religions and cultures.”

The blending of faiths “is so normal to them,” she says. “We were the pioneers.”

Crosses in the basement

(Rick Egan  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)    Stephen Washburn, April Washburn, Zoe Dobiner, and Aiden Dobiner, by a statue of St. Francis in their front garden.  Stephen and April Washburn are an interfaith couple. He is Episcopalian, she's Jewish. Thursday, April 18, 2019.
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephen Washburn, April Washburn, Zoe Dobiner, and Aiden Dobiner, by a statue of St. Francis in their front garden. Stephen and April Washburn are an interfaith couple. He is Episcopalian, she's Jewish. Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Rick Egan/)

After being a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and following the prescribed path — baptism, seminary, mission, temple marriage — Stephen Washburn felt unfulfilled. So he went looking for something else.

He and his then-wife and their child found it in the Episcopal Church.

Stephen threw himself in, studying the liturgy, teaching Sunday school and serving as a greeter, usher and reader for services. He liked the beauty and majesty, and the rituals moved him.

When his marriage ended in divorce in 2009, his Christian faith was a rock.

He then met April, a divorced New York-born Jew, with two children living in Utah.

While courting, religion was among the issues the two discussed, but it wasn’t a deal breaker, she says. “I was just looking for a like-minded man with a good heart — and he was certainly that.”

Stephen is “a believer in all ways, old and new,” she says. “He’s a kind of religious expert, who knows the Old Testament better than I do.”

For April, being Jewish is a fact of her life, part of her identity, but she is not super observant.

After they married, she kept her menorahs on the main floor, Stephen quips, while she made “the Christian” carry his crosses to the basement wine cellar.

Still, he is supportive of Jewish education for April’s two children, Aiden 13, and Zoe, 10. He was even able to participate as “a Gentile” in a part of stepson Aiden’s bar mitzvah.

Because of the cost of the party surrounding this Jewish rite of passage, Stephen joked that he was going to start taking Zoe to church before she had her own coming-of-age moment.

“Baptism is cheap,” he quipped, and “bat mitzvahs are expensive.”

Kidding aside, Stephen was spiritually moved when April’s parents took the whole family to Israel, where Aiden had a second, but shortened, ceremony, at Masada.

Once Stephen and Zoe were discussing sourdough starters, and he, being the baker, mentioned the need to let the yeast rise for some days but added that the Israelites were fleeing for their lives so they didn’t have time. Hence, their bread was flat, which is why they use matzo bread, which is “unleavened” in their Passover seder.

April, who does business development for Turning Point Centers, did go with Stephen to midnight Mass one Christmas Eve and found it inspiring and intriguing.

She had never been in a church before, April says, and wasn’t sure what to do. Still, she followed him with the reading, singing and participation. Despite having no idea how to do the Eucharist — “Just put the wafer on your tongue,” the patient priest told her — it was a positive experience.

In the end, though, April could never be a Christian.

“At a certain point, I stopped relating,” she says. “Jesus is not a god or savior to me. We see him as a rabbi.”

Anything else, April says, “runs counter to my beliefs.”

That’s OK with Stephen. They are not trying to change the other, she says. “It’s just live and let live.”

And enjoy both holidays.

New BYU basketball coach Mark Pope’s challenge: Overcome various institutional barriers to lift a proud program that has stagnated, seen better days

(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Lee Anne Pope looks over at her daughters as her husband Mark is announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope gets a kiss from his wife Lee Anne as BYU announces him as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope, alongside his wife Lee Anne speaks with BYU president Kevin Worthen after being introduced as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope, alongside his wife Lee Anne speaks with BYU president Kevin Worthen after being introduced as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope, center, alongside his wife Lee Anne speaks with BYU president Kevin Worthen after being introduced as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope looks over at his family as BYU announces him as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  BYU announces Mark Pope as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope is introduced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope is embraced by Athletic Director Tom Holmoe as he is brought into the BYU family after being introduced as its new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.

Provo • Ten or eleven days after he retired as BYU’s head men’s basketball coach, Dave Rose sat down for lunch with then-prospective Cougar coach Mark Pope in Minneapolis, site of the Final Four, and answered any and all questions about the program that his former assistant would inherit a few days later.

Oh, to have been privy to what was discussed.

Pope offered few details when he was asked about it at his introductory news conference on April 10, but whatever Rose said didn’t deter Pope from taking the job. He did, however, drag his feet just enough to get BYU officials to pay him more than they originally offered, and got more for his yet-to-be-named assistants, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

It remains to be seen whether the 46-year-old Pope, who has aspirations to lead one of the top programs in the country down the road, made the right call or not. A better job won’t come if he can’t get BYU back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

According to longtime observers of the program, Pope’s task won’t be easy. The program has been shackled by a combination of academic restrictions, a strict and perhaps outdated honor code and unyielding policies in regards to international students and language barriers. How the new coach manages those obstacles will be critical.

A program in a rut

What’s is the state of the BYU basketball program?

It is certainly better than when Rose took over for Steve Cleveland in 2005. The Cougars were coming off a 9-21 season and one of their best players, guard Mike Hall, was graduating.

“It is beyond extraordinary what coach Rose accomplished here,” said the exuberant Pope, prone to a bit of hyperbole.

Pope isn’t taking over a dumpster fire, by any means. The Cougars won 20 or more games in 13 of Rose’s 14 seasons and were 19-13 last season. They have been in the top 25 nationally in attendance, and first or second in the West, most of those years. They have a supportive, interested and engaged fanbase, by any measure.

But the program began stagnating a few seasons ago, perhaps even slid backwards a bit, and Rose didn’t seem to have the energy to reverse course. He acknowledged that as much in several interviews after he stepped down.

“You can trick yourself if you want,” Rose said, admitting he was “kind of numb” in conversations with his players after the Cougars were drubbed 80-57 by San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals. “But you can’t trick that feeling. That feeling is there. It was time to turn it over to the next guy. I hope this new guy can just go out and kill it.”

Attendance at the Marriott Center plummeted by more than 2,000 fans per game in 2018-19, a factor that BYU administrators surely noticed and likely took into account when they didn’t balk at Rose’s retirement plans, despite having given the 14-year coach a one-year contract extension last November.

Talent drain

Like Rose did in 2005-06, Pope will take over a roster that almost certainly will not include one of its best players. Star forward Yoeli Childs — who led the team in scoring (21.2) and rebounding (9.7) — will forego his senior season and enter June’s NBA draft, barring a major change of heart.

Childs’ departure — most likely for a professional career overseas — is symptomatic of what has plagued Rose’s program the past half-dozen or so years: the inability to keep promising players from either transferring or turning pro before they exhaust all their college eligibility.

“It is a real challenge that we have here,” Rose said, alluding to the fact that many of his players marry relatively early in life.

“They really start to look at their life in front of them, and say, ‘Hey, what can we do to enjoy this the very most?’ And that’s where we lost some guys.”

Childs is the third player in as many years to leave early, joining Eric Mika (2017) and Elijah Bryant (2018), who were also married when they bolted. All three were the team’s leading scorer the season before they left. The list of players who have transferred recently includes Oregon State’s Payton Dastrup, Utah Valley’s Jake Toolson and Isaac Neilson, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Frank Bartley IV, Boston College’s Jordan Chatman and Marquette’s Matt Carolino.

This spring, guards Rylan Bergersen and Jahshire Hardnett have entered the transfer portal and will likely leave, although Hardnett reportedly met with Pope and BYU athletic department administrators a couple days after Pope was hired and could foreseeably return if he doesn’t find a suitable landing spot.

One of the program’s deficiencies is apparent and startling, considering its players are supposed to be known as excellent shooters: The Cougars’ 3-point shooting percentage was 33 percent in 2018-19, their worst in 22 years.

“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder to go out and prove people wrong,” Seljaas said of the suddenly lowered expectations. “Those type of things are what fuel us. We want to show people that we are a great team and we want to be the best BYU basketball team there ever was. That’s every single year. We are going to push ourselves to do that. We look at it as a positive thing to push us and make last year just a learning year.”

Who’s coming back?

Senior wing Zac Seljaas said last week that he expects “almost everyone except Rylan and Jahshire” to return to play for the new coach. However, there are rumblings that more could be on their way out, including mercurial guard Nick Emery.

Thursday, Chinese big man Shengzhe Li, who signed with BYU and Rose in November, announced via Twitter that he sought, and was granted, a release from BYU. Another international player who signed with the Cougars during the early signing period five months ago, Brazilian Bernardo Da Silva of Wasatch Academy, is still on board, he said last week.

Athletic guard Taylor Miller, a walk-on returned missionary from Las Vegas and Gonzaga transfer Jesse Wade will also be eligible in 2019-20, after having sat out last season. One-time Cal commit Trevin Knell of Woods Cross returns from a church mission.

Clearly, the Cougars’ best player next season will be senior TJ Haws, a 6-4 combo guard who averaged a career-best 17.8 points last season. So Pope doesn’t inherit an empty cupboard, just one that lacks any sort of inside presence outside of 6-10 sophomore Gavin Baxter. The Timpview product excelled the latter half of the season and should continue to progress under the tutelage of Pope and likely assistant Chris Burgess, the former Duke and Utah player who is said to be outstanding at developing big men.

Speaking of developing talent, that’s something that critics contend Rose and his former staff failed to adequately accomplish. The roster does feature four ESPN top-100 recruits — Haws, Emery, Baxter and rising sophomore Connor Harding — but hasn’t produced the results many Cougar fans had hoped for.

Pope is expected to try to bolster the roster with a transfer or two — perhaps from his former school, Utah Valley. The aforementioned Toolson, the WAC Player of the Year, is available as a grad-transfer but considered a longshot, and 6-11 center Baylee Steele, another grad-transfer, has announced he’s headed to Duquesne.

Three other Wolverines — Orem High product Richard Harward, 6-10 center Wyatt Lowell of Gilbert, Ariz., and former SLCC guard Isaiah White — are also in the transfer portal according to radio station 1280 The Zone.

Another of Pope’s prized recruits when he was at UVU — American Fork guard Trey Stewart — could also be a target although the 6-3 Stewart is headed out on a church mission first.

Other impediments to success

Are expectations too high at BYU, given the aforementioned impediments? Pope doesn’t think so, saying at his news conference that the resources and facilities are in place to succeed.

“Certainly there is a standard of excellence that has been set with this basketball program, and incredibly high expectations, and that is one of the most enticing things to me about taking over this position, are those high expectations and the way we will be able to embrace them,” he said.

Pope said Gonzaga’s otherworldly success in the WCC shows it can be done out of a conference that is generally better than many locals believe it is. For instance, the WCC ranked eighth in the final RPI rankings, one spot below the Pac-12 and way ahead of the No. 15-ranked Mountain West.

Pope said he won’t schedule easier nonconference opponents just to get to 20 wins, though that doesn’t mean what is used to because teams play more games than they did 20 years ago.

“We will schedule really, really aggressively,” he said. “We will be fearless in everything we do. We will take our lumps and we will jump back off the mat and with confidence go on to the next battle. Our team will be a team that’s not afraid of failure, that’s not afraid of growing.”

Those lumps could come quickly — the Cougars will play in the Maui Invitational in November against the likes of Kansas, Michigan State, UCLA and Virginia Tech (the bracket has yet to announced) — and continue through January and February because the WCC again figures to continue its improvement, despite its perception nationally and even locally in some quarters.

Gonzaga will lose stars Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura to the NBA, but have another top-10 recruiting class coming to Spokane. Several other WCC programs, such as Saint Mary’s and Loyola Marymount, are going to be better.

Bottom line is that BYU right now has the resources and facilities to compete with the likes of Gonzaga in conference and Utah out of conference, but lacks the bonafide talent. That’s the upgrade the Cougars need the most, and Pope seemingly knows it.

“The guys who make it into our program are going to be guys who really really want to be here,” he said. “They want to come get what we are offering. … We need to find young men that are really talented players, that have big dreams, that have unbelievable insides.”

So a disgruntled fanbase can start believing again.

Despite earlier vows that tax hike funds would go to improve buses and roads, $400K now going to a study that may advance a $1.2B TRAX expansion

Utah Transit Authority officials insist they are not breaking a vow to voters not to use money from a recent sales tax hike to build additional expensive train routes, but instead spend it mostly to improve neighborhood bus service.

Still, through a complicated shifting of funds with Salt Lake County and Draper, $400,000 from that tax increase will go to help fund a study needed to advance a proposed $1 billion-plus TRAX expansion in the area where the state prison is scheduled to close in 2022.

“That’s not UTA dollars,” Interim UTA Executive Director Steve Meyer said this week, so no promises were technically made about its use.

He says the money is coming from Salt Lake County’s share of the sales tax hike. The county awarded $400,000 to Draper for a transportation study. But Draper then asked the county to give the money directly to UTA, which will oversee the study.

Meyer says his agency still is using its own share of the new tax increase mostly to improve bus service.

But the new study could lead to the sort of expensive rail projects that the agency once said were finished as it vowed to focus instead on improving bus service. Debt service on rail projects is UTA’s single-largest expenditure, running $119.6 million this year.

Promises, promises

UTA’s promises date back to the 2015 Proposition 1 election to raise sales tax for transportation by 25 cents for every $10 in purchases, with proceeds to be split among UTA, cities and counties.

Then-UTA Board Chairman H. David Burton said at a pro-Prop 1 news conference that UTA had “heard the public loud and clear.” He said the agency wanted any tax increase to “be used exclusively for increased service, primarily bus service,” not more rail lines. “More buses, more places, more often will make transit a more viable option for more people.”

Chris Detrick  |  Tribune file photo) Then-Utah Transit Authority Board of Trustees Chairman H. David Burton speaks during public comment at the Salt Lake County Government Center Tuesday August 4, 2015.
Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Then-Utah Transit Authority Board of Trustees Chairman H. David Burton speaks during public comment at the Salt Lake County Government Center Tuesday August 4, 2015. (Chris Detrick/)

Prop 1 was defeated in Salt Lake and Utah counties largely over concern about high UTA salaries and its $2 billion in debt incurred to build TRAX and FrontRunner rail lines. Even after the dust of the election was settled, UTA vowed that its new focus would be on buses.

When officials on Salt Lake County’s west side complained bus service there had long been ignored, Burton wrote them that “we are currently working on a comprehensive bus system redesign” and “are striving to find the right balance of service within the resources available.”

But last year as the Legislature ordered restructuring of UTA and its board, it allowed the counties to impose the old Prop 1 tax hike without voter permission — which they did.

Salt Lake County gave the OK after getting support for the tax from city councils representing two-thirds of the estimated 1.1 million residents of the county. Most of the discussion in those cities, though, was focused on the poor condition of roads and the need to fix and expand them.

New $1 billion TRAX expansion

Not until early this year did public officials start talking openly about the need of a $1.2 billion-plus TRAX expansion to Lehi. That came as the state-sponsored Point of the Mountain Commission said replacing the state prison there with proper development could generate billions in revenue throughout the Wasatch Front “if the right steps are taken.”

A study by Envision Utah for that commission said those “right steps” include about $3 billion in transportation improvements, including extending the Mountain View Corridor freeway and running TRAX through the area.

“If we fail, those 150,000 jobs [envisioned by growth at the prison site] could go somewhere else,” Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow told the commission. “We could see a significant degradation of the capacity to get around.”

(Christopher Cherrington  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)


Envision Utah President Ari Bruening added, “We’ve heard from a lot of employers that transit is a requirement for them to want to locate in a certain area. They are not willing to locate somewhere where there might be transit in 20 years.”

Amid such pressure, UTA and partners agreed to take a needed first step of conducting a transit alternatives study for the Point of the Mountain. The study’s estimated cost is $800,000. So far, only $550,000 has been raised — but UTA is planning to conduct it in phases so initial work can begin with the plan that additional money can be raised later to complete it.

The funding so far comes from the $400,000 in tax hike funds shifted via Salt Lake County and Draper; $50,000 directly from UTA; $50,000 from the Utah Department of Transportation; $25,000 from the Wasatch Front Regional Council; and $25,000 from the Mountainland Association of Governments in Utah County.

UTA officials say they hope the additional $250,000 needed may come from the Legislature (which did not approve such requests this year) or from Silicon Slopes businesses.

Vows broken?

Amid questioning by The Salt Lake Tribune, UTA officials say arrangements for the study do not break any vows about use of tax hike money and do not commit the agency to an expensive rail project. The study will look not just at rail but also at cheaper alternatives, such as a bus rapid transit line.

The study is needed and represents good planning, they said.

“We’ve recommended to the board and [it has] concurred that our focus needs to be on service” in its bus system, Meyer said. “That should not preclude us from planning opportunities.”

He added that “if we fail to plan, we plan to fail…. Right now we're in the study phase with a small investment from UTA to study a critical area.”

The $400,000 that came from the new tax hike was out of Salt Lake County’s and Draper’s share, not UTA’s portion, Meyer said.

Also, he said the study itself does not commit UTA to an expensive rail project. “We’re not obligated for anything beyond completing the study.”

He added that the review will also look at other cheaper alternatives, including bus rapid transit (BRT), sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels with dedicated traffic lanes, longer buses with extra doors and ticket vending machines.

Draper Mayor Troy Walker — who is also a member of the Point of the Mountain Commission and on the UTA Advisory Board that reviews projects — said bus rapid transit similar to the new popular Utah Valley Express in Provo and Orem may actually be a good solution for the Point of the Mountain area.

“I'm not personally married to it being light rail. In fact, I know the BRT might be the answer. It's a lot less expensive. I'm just in favor of getting quality transportation. If it's buses, I'm good with that,” he said.

He said figuring out the best transit options “is a big deal to us,” and is why Draper applied for the $400,000 for the study and assigned it to UTA. “I feel like we are behind the eight ball” in planning for development after the prison.

(Al Hartmann  |  Tribune file photo) Control doors and tower at the Wasatch units at the Utah State Prison in Draper. The Wasatch blocks are the oldest parts of the prison built in the early 1950's.
(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Control doors and tower at the Wasatch units at the Utah State Prison in Draper. The Wasatch blocks are the oldest parts of the prison built in the early 1950's. (Al Hartmann/)


UTA Board member Beth Holbrook said officials perhaps should have conducted similar studies before rapid development occurred in southwest Salt Lake County.

There “has been the constant charge” that “we don’t have enough transit options” there, she said. “The growth kind of took over…. One of the things we can do as we move forward is to make sure that transit is part of that discussion.”

Meyer added that better information about transit options and alignments are a needed piece of the puzzle for other studies about land use at the prison site.

“High capacity, frequent transit service there makes a huge change in the parking demand and the street capacity that needs to be built,” he said.

“Those considerations need to go hand in hand and they need to happen concurrently,” Meyer said. “We need to know the feasibility of these alignments so that the people can move forward when the state gets ready to bring developers on board.”

Only one person has ever publicly opposed such moves at UTA meetings.

George Chapman — a former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate who closely watches UTA — told a UTA Advisory Board, “I am against any projects at Point of the Mountain until we restore a robust bus system” as promised by the agency.

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