Utah officials received great news Friday about possible future highway funding - but it was dampened when President Bush called for changes that may vaporize part of it.
The good news is Utah would receive $1.26 for each $1 it pays to federal road funds if a highway bill just passed by the Senate becomes law, according to figures released Friday by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials.The bill also might provide enough funding and flexibility to keep important roads in Utah in the new, proposed National Highway System - such as U.S. 50 west of Delta and U.S. 89/91 in Cache County - which otherwise might not qualify.
President Bush, in a speech to the transportation association, called for the House to act quickly on the $123 billion, five-year bill the Senate passed - but he wants it to reduce spending and increase the matching funds that states would have to pay for federal funding of local road construction. That may kill Utah's good news.
The Senate added $18 billion to Bush's original proposal, which Bush said threatens other spending on education, health care and the war on drugs. And Bush wants a 60-40, federal-state match on grants, while the Senate bill calls for an 80-20 formula for most systems.
"We would have to raise the gasoline tax in Utah by at least 2 cents a gallon just to meet the increased state match," said Gene Findlay, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, after listening to Bush in the White House Rose Garden.
Findlay added, "I'm a little disappointed he's continuing to push this increased match for the states. We in Utah are paying more than the average for transportation already. We've already met the challenge and we're going to have to meet it again."
And, he said, proposals Bush continues to push would not allow U.S. 50 and U.S. 89/91 into the new National Highway System.
"We agree with the National Highway System. Our problem has been that up to now the administration has placed an artificial cap on the number of miles and allocated those miles to the states so that Utah ended up having a couple of important highways eliminated that are now on the system," Findlay said.
He added if the Senate bill is enacted, "It's possible we'll be able to get those roads back on the system."
Also, the transportation officials' group figured Utah would receive $179 million more than it actually contributes to federal funds over five years if the Senate bill passes, Findlay said. The bill would provide $862 million for Utah over that time.
Findlay was also pleased with Bush's call for the House to act quickly on the highway bill - in which Bush told the House, "Stop the jawboning up there. We've got to stop stalling and get the job done."
Findlay said, "I'm extremely encouraged and relieved that the president has moved this (highway bill) onto the national agenda as a high priority. . .. There's nothing in my estimation more important this year than the passage of the Surface Transportation Act, which expires Sept. 30."
Findlay also said he doesn't agree with Bush's assertion that the nation should not spend as much on transportation as the Senate bill would provide - and wants the nation to use money sitting in the highway trust fund for needed road work.
"I am quite concerned that we use the trust fund to balance the budget. I think we need to put trust back into the trust fund; that is, take it off the budget and use all the money for the highways. The people of Utah and the nation paid into it for that purpose," Findlay said.