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11th-hour debate on light rail is likely

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State funding for light-rail mass transit expansion, which appeared dead last week, has been revived and is headed for an 11th-hour debate in the 1999 Legislature.

Gov. Mike Leavitt on Monday made a $20 million argument in favor of state aid for a proposed west-east light-rail extension, and lawmakers even brought perennial light-rail opponent Brent Overson to the Capitol to hear his opinion.The proposal faces a tough challenge in the House. And the end result likely will be an amendment to an omnibus appropriations measure, or a separate bill, that probably won't be debated until Wednesday -- the last day of the session.

The proposal, still being crafted, would essentially bind the Utah Transit Authority, local governments within the agency's six-county district and the state to a $5-million-a-year funding plan to operate the 10.9-mile extension beginning in 2002.

UTA says it needs a commitment of state and/or local revenue totaling at least $25 million before the federal government will release $480 million to build the rail system.

"We're going to make sure this body knows what they're voting on in one way or another," House Majority Whip David Ure, R-Kamas, said of what has been a fairly clandestine, back-room process.

Ure said he will support a bill calling for equal participation from the state and local governments and believes it stands a good chance of passing the House.

But House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said it's too late in the session to consider something so significant. He said he will oppose state assistance for light rail and predicts it will have a tough time getting past House Republicans.

Senate President Lane Beattie emerged from a meeting about the issue late Monday afternoon and proclaimed, "Everybody's a player," meaning local governments appear willing to contribute their share. Beattie said he believes the proposal will have enough support to get through the Senate.

"It's a win-win for us to do this," said Beattie, R-West Bountiful.

The meeting included leading GOP and Democratic lawmakers, as well as two Salt Lake City councilmen and Overson, a Salt Lake County Commissioner. Beattie said his impression was that Salt Lake County would not stand in the way of a plan to use an existing 1/64th-cent sales tax to raise the local share of the $5 million annual subsidy.

Overson said afterward that if the state expects local governments to chip in, now is the time to identify the source of that money so governments can plan accordingly. The first $5 million wouldn't be needed until 2002, when the west-east line is finished and running.

But, Overson added, "We're opposed to light rail. Our position hasn't changed. . . . We're making no commitment to give any money to UTA at this point in time."

The issue appeared dead last week when only four governments -- Salt Lake City, West Jordan and Weber and Davis counties -- pledged their share of the 1/64th-cent sales tax.

The governor, silent on the issue until now, spent more than an hour in closed House and Senate GOP caucus meetings explaining why he thinks legislators should pass intent language giving UTA up to $5 million a year for 10 years, beginning in 2002.

"It would be a very unfortunate mistake, in my judgment, to pass this opportunity up," Leavitt said after meeting with House Republicans.

Leavitt and his staff estimate the $480 million project would generate about $52 million in local and state tax revenue over the next three years. Meanwhile, it would cost the state about $32 million in today's dollars to bankroll west-east operations for 10 years, Leavitt said.

That's a $20 million benefit, he noted.

"This is money that will appear -- if we build it," Leavitt said.

Then there's the $96 million in local money that will be saved if west-east construction occurs soon. Special language included in a federal transportation act permits 100 percent federal funding for west-east, but only if UTA can show it has the money to operate the line and can build it in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

To meet that deadline, construction of the line connecting Salt Lake City International Airport with the University of Utah would have to begin this summer, according to UTA engineers.

Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, visited the Capitol on Friday and said Utah still could capture a total of $640 million in Olympic-related transit money even if the west-east line is not built. But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, has informed the Legislature and the governor otherwise.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. contributed to this story.