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Massive $2.26B transportation proposal would be biggest in Utah’s history

Plan could be tweaked, with Senate leaders ‘queasy’ about $1.4 billion in bonding

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A southbound FrontRunner train crosses 9000 South in Sandy on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Double-tracking FrontRunner is one of the infrastructure projects being considered in the Legislature’s budget talks.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House legislative leaders unveiled on Thursday a massive, $2.26 billion spending plan for infrastructure — including $1.4 billion in bonding.

But the plan could run into some trouble with some Senate leaders not keen on taking out that much debt.

House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is sponsoring HB433, which would authorize the issuance of $1.4 billion in bonds for transportation and transit projects, plus nearly $823 million in one-time general fund revenues. Among the big-ticket items is $300 million to double-track certain sections of FrontRunner and $11 million for a bus rapid transit system in the Salt Lake Valley.

If the bill is approved in its current form, it would be the largest infrastructure spending package in the state’s history, Schultz told the Deseret News.

“This would fund infrastructure projects all across the state. This touches every corner of the state,” Schultz said. “To me, what with all the congestion and everything, that’s a huge deal. And it’s multi-model. That’s the neat part.”

But Senate leaders have some misgivings about parts of the plan, particularly the bonding.

“My gut is still queasy about our situation,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told reporters when asked about the spending plan, laid out in HB433 made publicly available Thursday.

“I think there’s still a cliff out there, and I worry about that,” Vickers said.

Even though Utah revenues have fared better than expected amid the pandemic this year, Vickers expressed concerns that the pandemic could still have financial impacts on the future, after COVID-19 stimulus funding has run its course. He questioned whether now is the right time to bond for that much money if Utah’s ongoing revenue could still be on shaky ground.

“I’m just having a hard time grappling with that,” Vickers said.

Gov. Spencer Cox also told reporters he isn’t fully on board with $1.4 billion in bonding, though he said his office is working with legislators to hone in on a smaller amount, perhaps $1 billion.

“We’re all-in on infrastructure,” Cox said, describing the state’s booming growth and a need to make sure the state’s roads and other modes of transportation catch up with that growth. But, he added, “All-in doesn’t mean all-in on the bonding. ... That doesn’t mean we’re opposed to bonding, but we have to get it right.”

Cox said Utah is “in this really strange time” when the construction market is red hot, boosted by the nearly finished construction of the new Utah State Prison and the new Salt Lake City International Airport. While “it’s a great time to bond” with cheap interest rates, “the cost of labor is still really high.”

But Schultz said it’s a perfect time to pump money toward construction, to shift that construction workforce winding down on the prison and the airport toward new transportation projects. He also noted there’s language within the bill to address that issue, which specifies “the amount and pacing of bond issuance support a consistent level of construction expenditures to avoid fluctuations in construction expenditures over time.”

“So absolutely that’s a concern we’ve addressed,” Schultz said.

Schultz acknowledged the bill, which is expected to receive its first hearing Friday, could run into trouble in the Senate. But he said House and Senate leaders are continuing to negotiate.

“We’ve been talking to them,” he said, adding that he’s “not stuck” on the $1.4 billion bond amount.

The $1.4 billion figure makes sense to Schultz, however, because he said it would not increase the state’s current debt levels because other bonds are being paid off. Because the amount would be spread out over several years, Schultz said the state’s debt levels would still go down even with the issuance of $1.4 billion in bonds.

“So even if we issue these bonds, (we) will have less debt next year, and we will have less debt once the bonds are fully issued,” he said.

As currently written, HB433’s bonds would pay for several projects, including:

  • $200 million to double-track sections of FrontRunner, contingent on an agreement between the state and the Utah Transit Authority that UTA would pay $5 million per year for 15 years toward repayment of the bonds. Also included in the bill is a one-time infusion of $100 million to total $300 million toward double-tracking FrontRunner.
  • $30 million for a Forest Street rail bridge project in Brigham City.
  • $11 million for a bus rapid transit in the “Salt Lake midvalley area.”
  • $5 million for an environmental study at Point of the Mountain, or the soon-to-be former site of the Utah State Prison.
  • $4 million for a Utah Transit Authority and Sharp and Tintic railroad consolidation project, which would connect Sharp and Tintic Railroad corridors within Springville and Spanish Fork.

Schultz’s bill would also pump $621.3 million for land acquisition, construction, reconstruction or renovation of a slew of other projects that have been prioritized by the Utah Transportation Commission, including:

  • A connector road between Main Street and 1600 North in Vineyard.
  • Geneva Road from University Parkway to 1800 South.
  • The state Route 97 interchange at 5600 South on I-15.
  • Two lanes on S.R. 111 from Herriman Parkway to 11800 South.
  • Widening of I-15 between mileposts 10 and 13 and the interchange at milepost 11.
  • Improvements to 1600 North in Orem from 1200 West to State Street.
  • Widening of I-15 between mileposts 6 and 8.
  • Widening 1600 South from Main Street in Spanish Fork to S.R. 51.
  • Widening of U.S. 6 from Sheep Creek to Mill Fork between mileposts 195 and 197 in Spanish Fork Canyon.
  • I-15 northbound between mileposts 43 and 56.
  • A passing lane on S.R. 132 between mileposts 41.1 and 43.7 between mileposts 43 and 45.1
  • East Zion S.R. 9 improvements.
  • Toquerville Parkway.
  • An environmental study on Foothill Boulevard in Saratoga Springs.

HB433 would also set aside $32.5 million for paved pedestrian nonmotorized transportation projects while requiring the city where the project would take place to contribute at least 20% of the costs.

Additionally, HB433 would fund $36 million for a the new proposed Utah Raptor and Lost Creek state parks, $67.5 million to enhance existing state parks, and $4 million for outdoor recreation grants.