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I-15 funding still hung up

A final transportation appropriations compromise keeps funding mostly on track for Salt Lake County light rail, but it contains no specific federal funding for I-15 reconstruction.

That came as House and Senate negotiators worked out differences Tuesday in their versions of transportation appropriations bills. It now goes to both houses for approval or disapproval on votes that do not allow amendments.The lack of money specifically earmarked for I-15 is not a surprise and is part of a looming problem for that project.

Utah Department of Transportation chief Tom Warne says I-15 probably will get more federal funding for fiscal year 1998 than it now has. The bill covers that fiscal year, and while it does not specifically set aside funds for I-15, it does increase the general Utah appropriation from $122 million to $136 million.

The $122 million is earmarked for specific projects, not I-15. But the $14 million increase goes to UDOT's Centennial Transportation Projects, of which I-15 reconstruction is one, said Warne.

I-15 funding has bumped into federal spending limits. The Utah delegation hoped to raise the limits during planned reauthorization of the five-year Inter-modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act - but action on it has been delayed, probably until next year.

So Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, included language instructing the Federal Highway Administration to give I-15 high priority for use of discretionary funds it controls to help tide over the project.

"These funds are pivotal for I-15," Bennett said.

"While the delay of ISTEA reauthorization inhibits us from directly appropriating I-15 funds, my language . . . will be helpful as we work toward this massive project's completion," he said.

Bennett asked for high amounts, knowing the compromise with the House would result in a lowering of the total.

Meanwhile, the final compromise package includes $63.4 million in 1998 to help with construction of the TRAX light rail. That was down from the $84 million placed in the original Senate bill by Bennett, the only Utah member of Congress on an appropriations committee.

The package also provides $4 million to help develop a commuter rail system from Ogden to Provo, down from $8 million in the original Senate version.

An "intelligent transportation system" - including construction of electronic signs on I-15 that can warn motorists of problems and areas of heavy traffic flow - would receive $3.5 million, down from $7 million in the original Senate bill.

The compromise also includes $2.5 million for "intermodal transportation centers" - places to allow easy transfers from car to train, bus, airplane or other transportation modes - in Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Park City and Ogden.

The package also urges the U.S. Department of Transportation to use some of its $4.4 million for planning to help prepare for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Bennett said.

Other Utah projects in the compromise include:

- $2 million for Utah Transit Authority park and ride lots (down from $4 million in the original Senate bill).

- $4 million for UTA bus acquisition.

- $400,000 for Park City transit buses.

Utahns are keeping a close eye on the bigger picture, the Inter-modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. The act was passed in 1991 and is now up for renewal. It should be a much more substantial federal contribution to I-15 reconstruction than the 1998 general appropriation agreed upon Tuesday.

"We expect Congress to extend it (ISTEA) in the next few weeks for a six-month period, which would allow us to go forward with our work next year without any delay," Warne said Wednesday.

When the final version of the act is passed, probably in about six months, Warne believes it will include "significant funding for I-15 and other projects in the state." The fact that the final version is delayed six months is a disappointment, he said.

As far as the compromise reached Tuesday is concerned, Warne thinks it probably will slightly increase I-15 reconstruction funding. However, the national government hasn't put much into the mammoth project yet.

So far, the federal contribution has amounted to only $14 million over the past 18 months. "We really don't expect the substantial federal dollars until the spring," Warne added.

Ken Connaughton, spokesman for Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini, said the compromise measure is not a blow. In fact, it is a big victory for the light rail system, for which Bennett deserves credit, he said.

Connaughton said he spoke with Corradini about the matter, and she said city officials are working closely with Bennett and Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, on the appropriations concerning needs of all the cities in the region. When that bill is passed, she is confident that the needs will be adequately cared for.

Members of Congress have been locked in a bitter fight over ISTEA. Its passage is not certain.

Most versions of ISTEA bills that are circulating would be helpful to Utah - if and when ISTEA passes.