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My view: Federal transportation bill threatens Utah's progress

Peter Corroon

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Over the last 20 years, Utahns have benefited greatly from a renaissance in our transportation infrastructure. Our transit system has come to be recognized as one of the most efficient and well planned in the nation. Dramatic progress has been made with a new commuter rail line and TRAX spurs to South Jordan, West Valley and the Airport. I was proud to be one of our local mayors who supported this rail expansion. And our main highway corridors, particularly I-15, have been renovated to handle the increased traffic that comes with Utah's rapid growth. A massive overhaul of I-15 in Utah County will be finished soon, as the most recent notable highway improvement.

Utahns have invested heavily in this progress, both through the expenditure of state tax dollars and the return of federal tax dollars to the state. Yet all of this progress could come to a screeching halt if a transportation package currently before the U.S. House of Representatives is enacted in its current form.

For starters, the transit portion of the package would eliminate dedicated funding for public transit projects around the nation. Despite three decades of successful investment in public transportation, originally started under President Reagan, the legislation would eliminate the 2.86 cents per gallon of the federal gasoline tax, which is currently dedicated to transit funding. This section of the package would also get rid of dedicated funding for the Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to Schools programs that have helped build safer streets and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, saving many lives.

But perhaps more disturbing are the funding sources envisioned for the transportation package. Rather than acknowledge that transportation infrastructure is an important function of government and should be prioritized in our federal budget, authors of the package are playing political accounting tricks to make it sound like the legislation "pays for itself."

Hitting close to home is one proposal to fund transportation through a massive expansion of oil shale development in Utah and other intermountain states. Oil shale development is controversial for environmental reasons, and there have been no commercial quantities of petroleum extracted from oil shale in the United States. And the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects even a massive expansion of oil shale in the U.S. would create virtually no revenue for transportation in the next 10 years.

Another proposal aims to fund transportation via a large expansion of offshore drilling, like that which led to the Gulf oil spill. And a third would open up drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. In total, these three "funding sources" tied to the transportation bill are projected by the CBO to generate less than 1 percent of transportation funding needs in the U.S. over the next few years.

Utah's congressional delegation is no stranger to these controversial funding sources. They have supported one or all of the three at one point or another.

Ending dedicated funding for public transportation and funding all projects (highway or transit) with unproven and controversial sources is a surefire way to end the great progress Utah has seen over the last 20 years. All Utahns should join me in urging our senators and representatives to make important investments in Utah's future over making political points in an election season.

Peter Corroon is the mayor of Salt Lake County.

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