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Transit funding: a pileup waiting to happen?

Some say proposed $4.5 billion won’t cover Utah’s needs

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Deseret Morning News graphic

Transportation officials have been sounding this horn for years: Without new money for road and transit improvements, more and more commuters can expect congestion and delays.

This year, the state has additional and unexpected revenues — but with so many hands reaching for the pot, it's already looking like a pileup waiting to happen, lawmakers say.

"Any time there's a pile of cash and a group of individuals with recognizable needs, you can expect there's going to be emotion in the discussion," said Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse.

Transportation won't be the exception.

For nearly two years, a special task force has worked to develop a mammoth funding proposal for new road and transit projects. It's the most aggressive plan to fund transportation in years — and has already produced heated debate.

The proposed package calls for $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to fund projects like commuter rail to Provo, light rail extensions and the Mountain View Corridor.

The money would come from sales tax adjustments, gas tax and title fee increases — plus a shift of $180 million each year from the state's General Fund.

Most lawmakers agree the money is needed, but the question is, how much?

Transportation planners and business leaders say even $4.5 billion isn't enough.

"We have major parts of the system that are backing up each night," said Sam Klemm, spokesman for the Wasatch Front Regional Council. "In the next five to seven years, we're going to reach a tipping point."

But lawmakers are admittedly leery of a tax increase, saying budget priorities should be adjusted first.

In a January meeting sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Senate President John Valentine called for a slow and steady approach to funding transportation — not a massive one-time push.

Utahns appear to agree.

A new Dan Jones & Associates opinion poll for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV shows that 67 percent of Utahns are opposed to an increase in the gasoline tax, which helps underwrite transportation projects.

Of the 623 surveyed, only 14 percent said they would favor a 5-cent increase in the per-gallon gasoline tax, while 16 percent said they favored placing the current sales tax on gasoline.

While a majority were still opposed, nearly 36 percent of Utahns said they would support a shift of state General Fund money toward road and transit projects.

The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

Klemm said while he understands opposition to a tax increase, the need for new funding is severe.

"We try to be apolitical, but we're seeing the writing on the wall," he said. "Without major investments . . . the situation will rapidly become worse."

Last fall, the Regional Council signed a resolution with the Mountainland Association of Governments, which oversees transportation planning in Utah County, calling for increased funding for transportation.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce released a similar resolution in November requesting that legislative leaders expedite the funding of planned projects.

"Currently, there is an unprecedented level of interest in transportation needs by the business community and legislative leaders," wrote Chamber President Lane Beattie, the former president of the Utah Senate. "As such, the upcoming legislative session offers a unique and timely opportunity to begin addressing the issue."

Lawmakers will debate other controversial transpor- tation issues this session, including a proposal to shift jurisdiction of more than half the state-operated roads to local government.

"This is a way to pull the state highway system down to bare bones and to free up more state resources," explained Linda Hull, legislative and government affairs director for the state Department of Transportation.

But the proposal doesn't transfer money to manage the roads, leaving city managers and mayors up in arms over the proposal.

Members of the Utah Transportation Commission, which approves funding of UDOT projects, are concerned about another proposal that would require a more scientific process for approving and prioritizing the funding.

Currently the commission uses a process centered around public opinion, engineering recommendations and scientific studies of cost and need.

The Legislature may also authorize a bill this session allowing UDOT to charge drivers who want to use HOV lanes but don't have any passengers.

Killpack is sponsoring a bill that would give local governments the option to raise vehicle registration fees to fund preservation of future roadway corridors.

"We should open up tools for better planning," he said. "It's one thing to plan for the future, but if you have no tools you haven't done yourself any favors."

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com