Most people seem to be aware of the pork in congressional budget bills. In fact, Washington's ongoing spending spree is considered to be part of the reason for the Republican defeat on Election Day. There were an estimated 6,371 pork projects in the highway bill passed last year. This compares to 1,850 pork projects in the previous (1998) federal highway bill and 538 in the one before (1991). Bringing home the bacon is the order of the day, even when sacred taxpayer funds are spent for multimillion-dollar bridges to nowhere.
But few are aware of pork in past Utah transportation funding projects. Heaven knows we have a backlog of unfunded critical projects, so people assume that all transportation money has been spent wisely.
Utah's Centennial Highway Fund of 1997 funded nearly $4 billion in projects, many of them critically needed such as the I-15 rebuild in Salt Lake County. Unfortunately, however, the measure also contained more than $200 million in what could only be described as pork. It was argued that the Legislature needed to include noncritical projects in key legislative districts to ensure passage of the funding proposal. However, in 2005 it became apparent that Utah could not afford to continue with pork-barrel business as usual: The backlog of critical transportation projects was so far beyond current funding capacities that the Legislature took a new approach. Rather than earmarking a set of new capacity projects in Washington style, the Legislature created the Transportation Investment Fund and is requiring the Transportation Commission to utilize an open, scientific criteria-driven process for ranking project needs to make sure that our limited funds go to our most essential projects. Project priorities are no longer based on politics, but science.
In the Legislature's recent special session, which empowered Salt Lake County to seek voter approval of a 1/4-cent sales-tax hike for rail and roads, the Legislature carried this priority process even further: SB4002 requires that the Salt Lake County Council of Governments use an impartial ranking based on each project's effectiveness in reducing traffic congestion and crashes, and other essential factors. This means that whatever rail or road projects are funded will make the biggest improvement in the movement of people and products through the valley.
The Wasatch Front Regional Council says this is the first time in the nation that transit and transportation projects are prioritized together using needs-based criteria.
In light of these improvements, it was surprising that the Deseret Morning News would oppose transportation reform in its Nov. 22 editorial. The News said a Dan Jones poll showed 66 percent support for using the new sales tax for four TRAX lines and the Legislature should butt out and let the county spend the money solely on transit. Had the survey asked the question a little differently: "Should the money be spent (a) on rail and road projects which will reduce the most congestion and crashes, or (b) on four new light rail lines without regard to congestion and crash reduction?" those polled would surely have overwhelmingly supported the Legislature's aim to get the most bang for the buck.
Hopefully the Legislature will stick by its guns and permanently end pork barrel politics. In fact, if the Legislature really wants to ensure needs-based prioritization, it should bring Utah Transit Authority under governance of the State Transportation Commission. This would end the wasteful tradition of the right hand not knowing, or caring, what the left hand is spending.
Howard Stephenson is a Utah state senator from District 11.