For years, Utah roads and highways have suffered from a shortage of funding for the upkeep and construction needed by a growing state. The result is a backlog of projects and unmet needs that add up to more than $2.2 billion.

Legislators in the past have rejected proposed increases in the state gasoline tax to raise the necessary money, and the problems of a decaying highway infrastructure have continued to grow. But the time has come to start meeting the problem head-on.Gov. Mike Leavitt clearly recognizes that evading the issue cannot continue and has made highway finances a major focus in his proposed 1995-96 budget.

Fortunately, Utah's healthy economy has produced budgetary surpluses that allow Leavitt to pump a proposed $82 million in new money into transportation construction - five times as much as any previous increase.

This is the equivalent of an 8-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase - without the tax, a neat maneuver. However, unlike a higher gasoline tax, the additional highway revenue may not be available year after year.

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Much of the money would be spent on I-15 and other arteries along the Wasatch Front corridor, which has the heaviest traffic. But the number of cars and trucks keeps increasing faster than new roads can be built, existing highways widened or the ravages of time and heavy use repaired.

Consequently, more emphasis must be placed on alternative forms of transportation, including public transit, light rail and other methods. If nothing else does the job, increasing air pollution and strict federal clean air regulations may eventually force commuters out of their autos.

But that doesn't mean highways can be ignored until gridlock descends or the feds shut down Utah's automobile traffic because it violates air quality standards. The state economy depends on good roads and reliable and easy access from place to place.

Leavitt's expanded highway construction budget may not be the ultimate answer, but it is a necessary step and deserves support from Utah lawmakers and the public.

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