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The 1997 Legislature will have to decide how to pay for transportation alternatives and long-overdue I-15 improvements. There's no way to delay it, ignore it or sugarcoat it.

Just like consumers who make choices every day about what to buy and where to get the money, the state can pay a lot upfront or a much larger total bill for the $2.6 billion project. Either way, Utahns will feel the pinch, but motorists should feel it most sharply.Raising the state tax on gasoline is the logical way to pay for transportation projects. It just makes sense for those who use the highways most to pay most of the costs, though all Utahns benefit in some way from better roads, even if they never drive.

Of the four options being considered, option 4, which raises the per-gallon gasoline tax by a nickel a gallon starting next year and increases the state sales tax by a quarter-cent, makes the most sense.

It would provide more upfront money and result in the state owing much less interest on borrowed funds than another popular proposal - option 1 - that would index the current gasoline tax to inflation.

Option 1 would mean a bigger debt for the state and much more in interest, but in the short run it would be easier on motorists who would only have to cough up about a penny more per gallon per year for 10 years. But the taxpayers - who are also the motorists - would end up owing about $1.1 billion when the project was complete.

That option would be similar to building a house that cost $260,000, taking 10 years to come up with a down payment of $120,000, paying $41,700 in interest and still owing $110,000 plus interest when the house is finished.

Using that analogy, option 4 would give the state a much bigger "down payment" on that $260,000 house. Only about $29,000 would have to be borrowed, and total interest would be $11,100, saving $30,000. Only $78,500 would be owed when construction was complete.

Option 4 also spreads the misery around by raising the sales tax as well as the gasoline tax but still requires users to pay the largest portion. It leaves more money in state coffers for ongoing state programs such as education.

The other two options presented to legislative leaders are less attractive. Option 2 would increase the gasoline tax 10 cents per gallon the first year, an increase that would be too much for individuals to swallow and would cause a huge ripple effect throughout the state's economy.

Option 3 would collect the highway funds from an increase in the state sales tax without a gasoline-tax increase. That alternative ignores the reality that user taxes are more fair and better accepted by taxpayers.

The exact amounts of increases in the gasoline tax and possibly in the state sales tax will have to be studied. But the concepts of paying less interest over time and of putting the burden on those who use highways most should guide legislators as they make the final decisions.