There was a comic irony to Gov. Mike Leavitt's late arrival at Friday's announcement that he wants the state to spend much of its surplus millions next year on roads.

Leavitt and his entourage were stuck in traffic."We clearly have to deal with our road-congestion problems in Utah," said the governor as he presided over dedication of the newest stretch of the Bangerter Highway, using the occasion to unveil what he called a "fairly significant reprioritization" that would add $81.6 million in 1995 to highway spending.

The proposal, if approved by the Legislature, would mark an 18 percent increase in the Utah Department of Transportation's budget.

Though Leavitt was sketchy on details of exactly where all the money would go, he said much of it would be funneled into work on the state's two biggest ongoing road projects - construction of the westside Bangerter Highway and preliminary design work for rebuilding I-15, the Wasatch Front's aging central commuter corridor.

"More and more cars are coming," said Leavitt, who, according to demographers in his own Office of Planning and Budget, wasn't overstating it.

That agency in it's latest projections says that by the year 2000 the population of Utah's four biggest counties - Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber - will increase by a total of 172,000 people, to about 1.65 million.

Leavitt noted the correlation between such growth and the fiscal health of the state, which for several years running has reaped surplus tax revenues.

"Utah's strong economy enables us to make this important investment in infrastructure without increasing taxes to our citizens," he said, ruling out any notion that the state raise its 19-cent-a-gallon gas tax to pay for road improvements.

With $72 million expected in surplus taxes this year on top of $166 million in anticipated revenue growth, the state is hardly in a position to ask for any kind of tax hike, though Leavitt cautioned that it might not always be boom-time in Utah.

"At some point in time we'll have to raise the gas tax," he said.

Brushing aside suggestions that highway spending of the magnitude he proposes would hurt other programs, particularly the state's crowded public-school systems, Leavitt said there is plenty to go around.

"This is also the largest education budget in the state's history," he said.

The governor, though less than precise about the source of all the $81 million-plus highway-spending infusion, said $24.3 million would come from the state's general-fund surplus and $30 million would be reaped by floating general-obligation bonds.

His proposal would create and contribute $46.5 million to a "Transportation Investment Fund" designed to pool various revenue sources over the next several years, bring UDOT's operating budget to $167.9 million next year and increase its capital-improvement budget to $277.7 million.

Other road-spending priorities, according to Leavitt, are projects to upgrade access routes to freeways and work to relocate railroad tracks from busy intersections.

Absent from the governor's spending proposal was much support for mass transit, though Leavitt said Friday he supports the construction of light rail as part of broader transportation plans and as long as it does not increase Utahns' tax burden.