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GOP seeing I-15 reality: must borrow more funds

The lug nuts have come off of the state's huge road-building plan, House Republicans were told Tuesday.

And the way to get the wheels back on I-15 reconstruction funding is to borrow.Borrow upward of $230 million this coming year. Borrow again in 1999 and 2000.

After being briefed on current road construction plans and costs, Rep. Brent Haymond, R-Springville, told a House GOP caucus: "We've just been squeezing the balloon (of road funding). We haven't seen the cost reductions (in departmental savings that the state Department of Transportation) promised. The lug nuts have come off (I-15 funding) and we're not even two years out" in starting the $1.59 billion project.

House GOP leaders didn't disagree. Although they said they have a funding plan that will keep work going through 1998-99.

However, because they don't trust Congress to come up with $40 million to $50 million more next fiscal year in extra road funding, they want to borrow for that additional money as well.

"That way we don't have to stop work" on any projects, said House budget chairman Marty Stephens, R-Farr West.

Senate Republicans support a bond of between $175 million and $200 million. But Stephens warned House Republicans that the bond may end up being much more.

The 1997 Legislature authorized $600 million in Centennial Highway Trust Fund bonds, believing that would be all the borrowing that would be needed to fund the first two years of the $1.59 billion I-15 project.

But unknown to lawmakers during last year's session, the I-15 bids were coming in higher than expected - with better concrete on bridge decks, more lighting and a $50 million bonus if the contractor finished early. In addition, the contractor proceeded faster than expected - and spending more cash quickly requires more bonding, as well.

But the real news Tuesday was Stephens' statement that there would be more road borrowing next year and the year beyond. The chances of all the road borrowing being repaid by the end of the 10-year Centennial fund is growing slimmer every day.

Still wide, however, is the chasm between House and Senate views on road funding.

Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, and Senate Majority Leader Craig Peterson, R-Orem, said bonding to fund Centennial projects always has been an option in years three, four and beyond, especially when and if federal funds are in doubt.

Bonding always will be an option, they said, as the Centennial fund is reviewed each year.

And UDOT departmental savings are being realized and could total $20 million a year in future years, the Senate leaders said.

Some Senate Republicans view their House counterparts as intent on blaming someone or exposing some hidden agenda with regard to UDOT spending and saving practices. There are no secrets, they maintain.

Senate Republicans also believe adjustments can be made to the projects included on the $2.83 billion Centennial list. One project that may receive scrutiny for possible removal altogether is the West Davis Highway, the first segment of the governor's proposed Legacy Highway.

The West Davis Highway and about $50 million in construction spending have been delayed one year. Some Democrats want another $27 million for West Davis planning and land acquisition scheduled for '99 to be removed from the Centennial budget as well. That remains a possibility.

The big picture on road funding also includes reconstruction of I-15 in Davis County, still in the planning stages and expected to begin no sooner than 2002, and the reconstruction of five miles of I-80 in Salt Lake County.

Bonding could be necessary in the future as bids for those projects are accepted and adjusted.