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RESOLUTION RENEWS THREAT TO LIGHT RAIL

The just-unveiled House Republican budget resolution - which is expected to pass Thursday - is threatening anew to derail Salt Lake County's proposed light-rail system.

Meanwhile in Utah, GOP legislative leaders are taking steps to make sure the state doesn't get dragged into funding light rail. But they worry no light rail may mean the loss of $200 million in federal funds for I-15 reconstruction, making Utah taxpayers pay more.In the 1997 Legislature, Gov. Mike Leavitt will ask lawmakers to finance part, or all, of a $1.09 billion reconstruction of I-15 in Salt Lake County from 10800 South to 500 North.

As of now, said I-15 UDOT engineer John Leonard, the state will ask for a 20 percent federal match for the I-15 project. "That would be about $40 million a year for five years" from the federal transportation fund, he said.

Like last year, the U.S. House's budget resolution proposes to stop federal grants for any new mass transit rail projects and to reduce the split of costs to finish any others to no better than a 50-50 federal-local share.

Utah Transit Authority officials have said the only way they can afford to build light rail without raising local taxes (which voters rejected in a referendum) is to obtain an 80-20 federal-local split. No 80-20 split, no light rail, says UTA's Bill Barnes.

The budget resolution is not legally binding, but Congress usually follows it as it adopts specific appropriations bills. A Senate version does not similarly restrict mass transit funding, and the House and Senate must work out differences.

Reps. Enid Greene and Jim Hansen, R-Utah, have been warning for nearly a year they did not believe obtaining a generous 80-20 split was possible in the House, where Republicans newly in control want to hold down federal spending.

But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says it is possible in the Senate, where such projects have more support of key leaders.

"It is my understanding that the House did the same thing in its budget resolution last year," Bennett said - but the Senate did not concur, and Bennett was able to obtain essentially the full funding requested for light-rail design work.

But the state is now requesting much more money for actual construction - and Bennett and Leavitt concede they don't know whether House opposition can be overcome to win those larger amounts.

Leavitt, in Washington on Tuesday, said: "We ought not turn a shovel of dirt on that (light rail) project until we know for sure what we have," he said. Groundbreaking for an early part of light-rail construction is planned for this summer. Leavitt added, "If it does require additional tax dollars, there would be a need to go to the public for those dollars because it was turned down in a referendum." But Utah GOP legislative leaders said not to count on them to be out front in asking for more tax dollars for light rail.

The Clinton administration has supported an 80-20 cost split and requested $35 million for first-year light-rail construction in its 1997 budget request.

But Leavitt sought even more last week - $58 million - in a request forwarded to Senate subcommittees by Bennett.

"Life being what it is in the Senate, we won't get $58 million," Bennett said, noting that it is often politically wise, however, to seek more than one really needs. "The $35 million or so that the president requested would be nice."

Bennett said the $58 million represents that maximum in federal funds the state figures it could spend on light-rail construction next year.

But Hansen says obtaining such large amounts and the 80-20 split "would require a miracle."

He said meetings that Utah's delegation, House GOP leaders and Leavitt had with chairmen of House subcommittees overseeing such spending had also made that clear - although delegation members told the press at the time that the chairmen had not totally ruled out such funding. Utah House Speaker Mel Brown attended those meetings in Washington last week and says "the commitment (in the U.S. House) for the 80-20 split for light rail was very soft."

Hansen said he feels the state ought to consider some other options to reduce congestion - including building a toll road (so federal funds would not be needed) on the west side of Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties, where drivers could pay to avoid the congestion of I-15.

Language in the new House budget outline also says some downright nasty things about mass-transit rail projects to justify cutting funds for them.

For example, a copy provided by Greene said, "There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that building new urban rail systems reduces traffic congestion. Yet by subsidizing 80 percent of transit construction projects, the federal government has encouraged expansion of economically unjustifiable mass transit rail systems."

Meanwhile, Bennett says that if light rail dies, the project to rebuild I-15 likely would not be able to obtain needed clean-air permits to proceed; some of its key funding from mass transit (not highway) funds would be lost; and a key alternative to relieve congestion during construction would disappear.

"In order to get (federal) funding for I-15, there must be some mass transit in the overall plan," Bennett said, adding that the governor's office figured the best alternative was light rail. And that's how the state could lose $200 million in federal money for I-15 reconstruction.

"With those two facts, yes, light rail is essential to I-15," Bennett said. "Decision-makers in Utah are pushing light rail, and I'm trying to find the money to finance it."

It's not clear which "decision-makers" in Utah Bennett refers to, for there is growing opposition to light rail within state Republican Party ranks.

Brown said he knows of no Republican legislative leader who wants a tax increase for light rail. Since some kind of mass transit will likely be required to get federal I-15 money, it now appears there may be not be federal money for that $1 billion I-15 project. Even if there is, say Brown and other state GOP leaders, it may not be as much as state officials hoped.

It would probably be impossible to get federal money for light rail if the district's U.S. House member is against it. Greene, a less-than enthusiastic light-rail supporter, is retiring. Republican candidate Merrill Cook is adamantly opposed to light rail; his campaign is endorsed by a local anti-light rail group. The other Republican in the 2nd District race, R. Todd Neilson, says he is also against light rail unless 2nd District voters specifically approve of it in another referendum, and he's against a tax hike for light rail. Democratic candidates Kelly Atkinson and Ross Anderson favor light rail, but if one of them wins in November they may be in the minority in a GOP-controlled House.

The Utah Republican Party central committee and the Salt Lake County Republican central committee have both passed resolutions opposing light rail.

GOP state House and Senate leaders were set to meet Wednesday to discuss I-15 and light rail, and UDOT director Tom Warne will address a Wednesday afternoon legislative committee outlining costs and building schedules for reconstructing I-15.