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Should Congress try a no-strings approach to federal highway funding?

‘Let Utah be the guinea pig,’ UDOT official tells lawmakers

FILE - Northbound traffic moves slowly during rush hour on I-15 near Antelope Drive in Layton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
FILE - Northbound traffic moves slowly during rush hour on I-15 near Antelope Drive in Layton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee were getting an update Wednesday on the upcoming expiration of a federal highway funding program when the discussion shifted to giving the state more freedom to spend the money.

“This is maybe a little radical,” Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo said, before asking whether the state could seek some sort of waiver from the federal government to keep the federal gas tax revenues collected in Utah and use the money “at our discretion” for transportation needs.

“I believe we can do it better in Utah,” Robertson said.

He didn’t get any argument on that point from Linda Hull, legislative services director for the Utah Department of Transportation. The $351 million in federal funding UDOT received for the current budget year makes up about 19% of the agency’s budget but comes earmarked for specific uses, such as preserving highways or improving safety.

“Thanks for opening the door for me. It’s a concept that’s been talked about for many years. It’s called devolution. It’s just evolving the program back to the state,” Hull said. While there’s no waiver to get out of the federal program, she suggested it might be better to get Washington to turn over the money without strings attached.

For the last six years, Hull told the committee, she’s been trying to pitch a pilot program that would, in effect, send UDOT’s share of federal transportation funding to the state in the form of a block grant so decisions on spending would be made by the agency.

“We have measures in place to see what we do with our money. Let us use that to figure out where the money goes. Then we’ll report back to, ‘This is what you got for your investment.’ I will say that at the end of the day, I don’t think it will significantly change how we program those funds,” she said.

“We’ve learned how to kind of play the game well,” Hull said. “But there are things at the margin that we may be able to change. And it would allow us to demonstrate to Congress how true performance-based programming can work,” Hull said. “Let Utah be the guinea pig and show how something like that could work.”

Nationally, there’s a “constant drumbeat” among state transportation officials to gain more control over how federal funds are used, she said. “We don’t want decisions being made in Washington. We want them being made here.”

Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, the committee’s House chairman, liked the idea.

“Maybe there’s some innovation there that we could look at, that would give Utah more control over the funds that really should be kept here,” he said. “I think it’s worth looking into quite a bit more.”

Hull said there is still a need for the federal government to be involved in transportation.

“I know this may not be popular among legislators, but we believe that there is value to a federal program. The transportation system is an interstate, nationwide program. There’s a place for it. There’s a place for a role in safety,” she said, noting the program’s focus on a national role has been sharpened in recent years.

Northbound traffic moves slowly during rush hour on I-15 near Antelope Drive in Layton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
FILE - Northbound traffic moves slowly during rush hour on I-15 near Antelope Drive in Layton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The current funding program, known as the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation,” or FAST Act, was passed in 2015 and is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2020. Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, said the previous program was extended 11 times, for weeks or months, before it was passed.

Federal gas tax collections cover only about two-thirds of the funding, The 18.4-cent a gallon federal tax rate hasn’t been raised for more than 25 years and, just like Utah’s gas tax, isn’t keeping pace with road construction and maintenance needs.

That would require a hike of about 15 cents a gallon in the federal gas tax or more deficit spending by Congress, Gruber said.

“It’s tricky,” he said of filling the federal funding gap. “It’s tricky financially and it’s tricky politically.”

Gruber said it’s important to ensure local, regional and state transportation agencies aren’t held back.

“Sometimes I feel like we talk about this stuff, and we’re like on a ‘Rah, rah Utah’ chorus, but Utah really is doing a great job in innovating and using data and technology,” he said. “We want to make sure the federal program is not impeding our ability to be innovative and as effective as possible.”