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HOUSE PANEL QUADRUPLES I-15 FUNDING

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A project to widen I-15 in Salt Lake County is on the road again after the House Appropriations Committee quadrupled the money a subcommittee had earlier proposed for it.

The committee proposed on Thursday giving $13 million for the project next year, in contrast to just $3 million that its transportation subcommittee had earlier recommended."The rule around here is that persistence and endurance pay," said Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, who has pushed the funding.

The increase comes because Shepherd found some creative ways around funding roadblocks by persuading leaders to allow using some federal mass transit money for it - even though that normally only goes to bus and train systems.

The project's main problem was that it had not been officially authorized in previous transportation bills - which had killed all proposed funding for it last year.

This year when the House passed a bill to create the new National Highway System, Shepherd managed to get the project authorized as part of it - but only at a tiny $6 million level over three years.

That was much less than the $148 million authorization the state had sought for the life of the project. About 40 percent of that was for a light-rail system, which it said was needed to reduce congestion during construction on I-15.

"We talked about what to do, and we realized Congress had authorized the whole proposed mass transportation system in Salt Lake County at $131 million" in 1990, Shepherd said.

"But then a sales tax initiative failed, and that meant they could not build the transit system as designed (including light rail) . . .. That meant $70 million of the authorization couldn't be spent because there wouldn't be local money to match it," she said.

Shepherd convinced the Public Works and Transportation to change wording to allow some of that otherwise unusable transit authorization to be used in planning the addition of high-occupancy vehicle lanes to I-15 and related work.

House appropriators followed suit and set aside money in next year's budget for it on Thursday.

"We still have a long way to go," Shepherd said. "The Senate must still pass the National Highway System bill for this to have effect, and there is some question about whether that will happen."

Utah officials originally hoped for about $12 million for the I-15 project next year and now are on track for $13 million.

"But the real problem is for the years after that. We will only have $3 million in authorization remaining for two years, with no other authorization bills coming for us to increase that," she said. "Unless we can convince them to reprogram more transit money, it could be a problem. But we are on the right road for now."

The Appropriations Committee also approved $13 million in funding for other projects in the state for next year.

That includes $6 million to extend 2000 East in Sandy; $4 million to help convert U.S. 89 into a freeway in Davis County from Farmington to I-84; and $3 to improve Provo's I-15/University Avenue interchange.

The full House must still approve those levels, but it normally follows the recommendations of the Appropriations Committee.

The Senate must also approve the spending and pass the National Highway System bill for the spending to take effect.