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TRAX gives U. good seat on ‘pork barrel’ express

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Deseret Morning News graphic

Thanks to light rail, the University of Utah got a high ranking on a list that looks at which of the country's colleges and universities benefit the most from federal monies for "pork-barrel" projects.

The Sept. 26 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education ranked the U. 30th on a list of 716 public and private colleges for the fiscal year 2003, which ends tomorrow.

That's largely because of the $12 million the school benefited from via the Department of Transportation for a TRAX light-rail line through its campus to the U. and Primary Children's medical centers.

The $90 million line opened to riders Monday. About $54 million of the total bill came from federal sources — of that, $12 million came in FY 2003 as an "earmark" for the latest extension.

"FTA (Federal Transit Administration) and Congress have learned to appreciate the successes and like supporting potential successful projects," said U. spokeswoman Coralie Alder. TRAX construction projects have gained a reputation for coming in under budget and ahead of deadline. Alder said the feds also recognize that TRAX has been a big hit with riders.

The so-called earmark funds don't require schools to compete directly with one another for the money. Nor does President Bush budget for the projects that benefit from this funding source. Overall, Utah ranks 31st nationwide in academic pork.

Earmark funding, however, has critics who say the funds are more about which lawmakers in Congress have the most political clout in this federal money grab. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and transportation subcommittee, is credited with securing the 2003 earmark for the U. light-rail line.

"Certainly Senator Bennett is happy his seat on Appropriations was able to deliver some of these funds," said Bennett spokeswoman Mary Jane Collipriest.

Utah Transit Authority general manager John Inglish said that the $12 million earmark, which appears in the Chronicle to go directly to the U., actually benefits the two medical campuses. That money, he noted, went through the Utah Department of Transportation and UTA first before ending up funding the TRAX line through the U. campus.

All total, the Chronicle reports that the FY 2003 higher education earmarks topped $2 billion, a record. Much of that money went toward myriad Department of Defense-related projects.

Since FY 1999, the U. has received $24.5 million in "non-shared" earmarks or money that only benefits the U., according to the report.

Higher education earmarks in Utah for FY 2003 include:

Brigham Young University — $1 million (shared) from the Department of Defense.

Salt Lake Community College — $496,750 from the Department of Education.

U. of U. — $12 million from the Department of Transportation for the light-rail line, $2.475 million (shared) from the Environmental Protection Agency, $2.217 million from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Utah State University — $675,000 from NASA, $1.644 million from the Department of Agriculture, $347,725 from the Department of Education.

Weber State University — $500,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Western Governors University — $2.285 million from the Department of Education.

The Chronicle notes that the overall list may be incomplete because of the difficulty in detecting academic earmark monies that may not always flow directly to colleges and universities.

E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com