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UTAH HIGHWAY SYSTEM CALLED THE 2ND-MOST COST-EFFECTIVE

Utah's highway system is the second-most cost-effective in the country, according to a study by a transportation professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

The Utah Department of Transportation got high marks in part because of the relatively good shape of its roads when compared with much of the rest of the nation. It also ranked well for trimming administrative costs between 1993 and 1994 by 17 percent, according to a report by David T. Hartgen, a UNC-Charlotte professor of transportation studies.The agency's maintenance cost per mile of $11,773 in 1994 ranked 25th overall, below the national average of $12,602. Pavement conditions on Utah's rural interstates ranked fifth in the nation. The condition of its urban interstates ranked seventh and the state's proportion of deficient highway bridges - 10.7 percent in 1994 - was well below the national norm of 31.5 percent.

But the report, which has been questioned in some quarters, offered one statistic that was clearly out of whack.

Hartgen said urban congestion in Utah declined substantially between 1993 and 1994 from 62.5 percent to 34.9 percent. "Congestion" was defined as the proportion of urban highway at or above 70 percent of capacity.

"Frankly it strikes me as a little odd," said Kent Hansen, a UDOT spokesman. "We've been talking congestion, congestion, congestion, and they're saying its declining?

"I don't think so."

UDOT traffic counts, logged daily at scores of electronic stations, show double-digit increases everywhere along the Wasatch Front during the 1990s. In some cases, traffic is up by 40 percent or more since 1990 at points along I-15.

Hartgen conceded that his urban-congestion numbers for Utah probably misrepresent reality. But he said that's because UDOT offered data in 1994 that was collected in a way that was "fund-a-men-tal-ly different" from past reports.

All of Hartgen's conclusions were derived from information supplied the Federal Highway Administration by individual states.

Hansen said he agreed with the report's flattering review of UDOT's administration, however.

"We didn't ask for one new employee this year," said Hansen, explaining that administrative reforms initiated in the early 1990s by former UDOT Director Craig Zwick have been continued by his predecessor, Tom Warne.

"We're getting a lot more lean and mean . . . and we're looking for more input from workers in the field rather than having arbitrary decisions made by senior engineers in ivory towers."

The study was not greeted as warmly everywhere.

Transportation officials in New Jersey, ranked last in the report, gave it little credence.

"The report has generated considerable controversy, and judging by several published articles and letters, it has largely been discredited," said Department of Transportation spokesman John Graff.

Hartgen responded by saying New Jersey has the largest number of employees per highway mile and the most money spent for a highway system that is not as good as road networks in other states.

Associated Press contributed to this article.