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$1 BILLION MAY BE SOLUTION TO MAKE SLUGGISH I-15 FLOW

Never mind light rail.

I-15 is the thing that needs money, say planners trying to get the freeway's $1 billion widening and renovation off the ground.For anybody who hasn't traveled the Wasatch Front's main traffic artery lately, the interstate from Ogden to Provo seems ever more sluggish day by day, a perception borne out by the numbers. Vehicle counts conducted by the Utah Department of Trans-portation show increases of 25 percent in many places from 1991 to 1994, according to figures released by UDOT last week.

At 10600 South in Sandy, in one notable instance, average daily traffic in three years went from 83,850 to 107,375, a 28 percent jump.

It's sobering but not surprising. Utah, after all, is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. Planners have warned for years that infrastructure isn't keeping pace with population expansion.

"We've seen stunning (traffic) increases for some time now," said Clint Topham, deputy director of UDOT and a 25-year veteran of the agency who remembers with some nostalgia Utah's traffic-placid 1970s.

"Back 20 years ago when I was in the early part of my career we kind of discounted highway use on Saturdays and Sun-days."

Not so anymore. Even on weekends, I-15, especially in urban Salt Lake County, is congested. It's a headache of major proportion from Monday through Friday.

The solution, according to UDOT, is turning the six-lane freeway into a 10-lane road, reserving in the process one lane in each direction for HOV traffic - high-occupancy vehicles. Buses would have the right of way along such lanes; so would private vehicles with two or more people. Combined with the Utah Transit Authority's $300 million Sandy-to-Salt Lake City light-rail project, which appears destined for federal funding and will likely be in service within five years, I-15's remodeling is supposed to ease what before the turn of the century will probably be near-complete gridlock on the interstate.

Money, however, is a hurdle.

When the U.S. House of Representatives last month included $5 million for I-15 HOV lanes in its transportation appropriations bill, the grant was announced with some exuberance by Rep. Enid Waldholtz, R-Utah, as a step toward easing urban Utah's traffic jams. And Time magazine singled the appropriation out as an example of pork-barrel spending by congressmen ballyhooed as supposed deficit-busters.

But the fact of the matter is that $5 million - a fortune by most standards - is a drop in the I-15 bucket. It represents less than 1 percent of what UDOT needs to rebuild the highway. Reconstructing just the South Salt Lake intersection of I-15 and I-80 - the single busiest traffic spot in the state - will cost $300 million alone.

Five million dollars, in the grand scheme of things, won't get much done.

"If that's pork, then it's a pretty lean pig," said Douglas S. Atkin, a UDOT engineer who has worked for years planning the I-15 endeavor.

UDOT is plowing ahead, however, this summer awarding design contracts on the project, a phase that will cost in the neighborhood of $70 million and take two years at least. Not until 1997 - at the earliest - will ground be broken, and Atkin said work even then will unfold painfully slowly.

What some commuters envision as a couple of years of construction will take five years under a best-case scenario, said Dave Miles, UDOT's program development engineer.

"And that's really a demanding schedule when you think about what has to be done."

The project would occur in stages over 15 miles from 400 South to 10600 South.

Its timetable depends in no small part on funding (manpower and construction-materials availability are the other limiting factors), and most of it will probably have to come from state coffers, according to UDOT officials and others.

"The most we can look for from the federal government is $100 to $200 million," said Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson, who said traffic congestion is the No. 1 complaint he gets from constituents these days.

Federal reluctance to pay for the improvements means, probably, an increase in the state's 19-cents-per-gallon gas tax, or a heavy subsidy from what has become regular state budget surpluses in the 1990s.

UDOT's budget - second among state services only to education - has little fat from which to borrow, said Miles. The agency's current fiscal-year budget amounts to $350 million. About a third of that comes from federally shared gasoline-tax revenues; $155 is from state gasoline taxes; $38 is from trucker-fuel taxes; vehicle registrations contribute $22 million and trucker permits raise $21 million.

Most of that goes for operating expenses and resurfacing projects; $30 million is left over for new construction.

It's enough, maybe, to build a single freeway interchange.

"A small one, that is," said Miles.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

I-15 traffic increase: Wasatch Front

DAILY AVERAGE PERCENT

SITE 1991 1994 INCREASE

Provo, Center Street 51,575 64,745 26%

Orem, Center Street 58,930 73,985 26%

10600 South, Sandy 83,850 107,375 28%

9000 South, Sandy 110,965 138,320 25%

I-215, Murray 110,690 126,865 15%

I-80, South Salt Lake 165,955 190,815 15%

500/600 South, Salt Lake City 98,190 115,615 18%

I-80 (Westbound), Salt Lake City 81,310 92,852 14%

I-215, North Salt Lake 101,600 117,855 16%

Woods Cross, Davis County 89,070 103,285 16%

Sunset, Davis County 68,125 83,420 22%

Ogden, 31st Street 52,580 64,675 23%