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MIGHT LIGHT-RAIL FUNDS FALL SHORT?

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If the opinions of Utah's congressional delegation are an accurate barometer of whether or not the state will get enough light-rail funding, the forecast is, at best, partly cloudy.

"I have serious reservations about funding for light rail," said Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah."Long-term federal commitments are tenuous," said Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah.

"I'd be very careful," added Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah.

Those comments were made Tuesday to a meeting of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee, which invited Utah's delegation to give its perspectives on the future of light rail and I-15 funding.

State lawmakers are themselves struggling with how to put together a budget that includes major transportation infrastructure. A long-range plan by Gov. Mike Leavitt calls for more than $3 billion to be spent on transportation needs over the next 10 years.

Light rail is on the table not because lawmakers or the congressional delegation think the mass transit system is a good idea. Rather, the state was required under the Clean Air Act to develop a plan for cleaning up the air pollution along the Wasatch Front. Light rail is a part of that clean air plan.

Could the state change its mind and pursue some other mass transit option that would satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency? Maybe, but there isn't really enough time to pursue anything but light rail, the delegation agreed.

"The reality is you are going to have to have a commitment to mass transit of some kind," Orton said.

So whether state lawmakers like it or not, light rail is the only option available. And as such, Utah's congressional delegation is behind it and pushing for the full 80 percent federal funding.

"I am a reluctant supporter of light rail," Hanson admitted.

Of course, there is another option and that is to change the EPA's rules that have mandated the state develop a clean air plan.

"Maybe we ought to change the rules," Hanson said. "There are ways to change the rules."

As it stands now, Congress has authorized the light-rail system with the federal government paying 80 percent and the state 20 percent. But Greene cautioned lawmakers that Congress has authorized more spending than it has money to spend, and there are no guarantees that Congress in the future will actually appropriate the money.

"There is a significant risk that we will struggle to get the funds necessary," she said.

Orton was somewhat more optimistic, saying that once actual construction begins, Congress will be more reluctant to halt or decrease funding. It costs too much to start something, stop it and then start it up again.

But will the state get the money it needs to complete the system in time for the 2002 Olympics? "If you think it will be built in five years and will be fully funded," Hanson said, "your kidding yourself."