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UDOT WATCHDOG'S MIND IS ON D.C.

Clint Topham may be sitting in his office at the Utah Department of Transportation, but his mind is on Washington, D.C.

The UDOT planning director has been on the phone a lot this week to the nation's capital, monitoring the state's fate as Congress debates funding for state highways and transit systems for the next five years."I was on the phone most of yesterday," Topham said Wednesday morning, referring to conversations with Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah. When amendments or new bills surface in the debate, the senators call Topham to get his input on what's best for Utah.

"We try to react as best we can," Topham said.

Topham must stay on top of each proposal and its pluses and minuses toward Utah. One of the most crucial factors he must consider is "the formula" that the federal government will use to determine how much money each state will receive yearly.

For the past five years, the formula has given Utah $1.34 in federal funding for every $1 Utahns pump into the federal gasoline tax. Two of the proposals before Congress call for less of a subsidy while another recommends Utah receive 99 cents for every $1 contributed.

Populous Eastern states want to stop the subsidy, contending they have paid for highway development in Western states like Utah long enough. But Topham defends the subsidy based on Utah's obligation to provide access to federal land, which makes up two-thirds of the state, and the interstate system's role of moving commerce throughout the country, not just in Utah.

"When you talk about fairness on national issues, what about the savings and loan bailout? Did we make sure each state paid $1 for $1 on that?" Topham said. "We pay more into (mass) transit than we get out, so we are subsidizing transit systems in New York, Miami and Atlanta."

As of Wednesday, UDOT favored legislation sponsored by Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., that would give Utah $1.27 for every dollar contributed to federal coffers.

The Utah Transit Authority is also rooting for the Moynihan bill. "It clearly gives much more to transit" than the Bush administration wants to pay.

UTA's board recently passed a resolution expressing disgust with the Bush administration's proposal, which would provide UTA with a paltry 2.7 percent annual increase in federal funding.

According to USA Today, Bush would offer $22 billion for mass transit construction and nothing for operating costs, while Moynihan would let each state decide whether to use its share of a proposed $45 billion for either roads or mass transit, as well as some money for mass transit operating costs.

The Bush proposal revamps the mass transit funding formula to favor densely populated areas. The current formula benefits UTA because it also considers the miles buses must drive, and UTA's service area covers a lot of ground, Pingree said.

Federal money makes up only about 5 percent of UTA's budget, but Pingree noted that the Bush administration's cutback in mass transit funding would severely hamper UTA's ability to expand service.

"It wouldn't shut us down, but it is still a lot of money," UTA spokesman Bill Barnes said.