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My view: Utah's transportation budget struggles

By Johnny Anderson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 24 2014 5:20 p.m. MDT

The April 16 article by Joan Lowy of The Associated Press titled, “The Transportation Blues,” describes the transportation funding woes of the federal government. The potential loss of or decline in federal transportation dollars will seriously impact Utah. I wanted readers to understand that impact as well as our current funding situation.

According to Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan, we are facing a shortfall of $11.3 billion over the next 25 years in our transportation infrastructure development and maintenance needs. Roughly one-third of that need is at the state level, another one-third at the local level and the remaining one-third is for transit. This is based on our projected population growth and development plans.

In order to limit this discussion to roads, let’s ignore transit funding leaving a $7.5 billion shortfall. Therefore we need approximately $300 million additional per year for the next 25 years to meet our road capacity and maintenance needs. UDOT’s budget for 2013 was just over $1.2 billion, so adding $300 million is a considerable amount. However, if we don’t begin to tackle this issue, then Utah’s transportation system, road congestion and air quality will get progressively worse.

Road maintenance is an important job of both UDOT and local governments. Despite how good our roads might be now, road maintenance is an area where we need to do much better. Local governments are having trouble affording maintenance costs. Most state roads receive appropriate, preventative maintenance but not all. We have thousands of miles of state rural roads that we cannot afford to proactively maintain. Although this is currently a budgetary necessity, it is a terrible strategy. A road is at least six times less expensive to proactively maintain than to just fill potholes. Well-maintained roads last longer and are safer.

Of the $300 million per year we need to meet our funding shortfall, about $67 million would bring all state roads into the proactively maintained category and would pay for all of the bridges and overpasses that need to be replaced. So, even if we didn’t come up with the $300 million we need to properly prepare for growth, we still need the $67 million per year for proper maintenance. The $300 million is very necessary, the $67 million is critical.

Now for the really scary part. Of UDOT’s 2013 budget of $1.2 billion, over $200 million is federal funds. If Congress does not act to restore solvency to the Transportation Trust Fund, we could see that $200 million quickly become less than $10 million in 2015. So our critical need of $67 million quickly jumps to over $250 million for that year.

This year’s Legislative Transportation Interim Committee will work on ideas to deal with our funding shortfall. There will be debate about increasing taxes and whether it is more appropriate to increase the gas tax, registration fees, sales tax or some of each. It will be a difficult task but it must be accomplished. The growth is coming and our infrastructure continues to age.

We can work together and demonstrate the courage and forethought needed to address the problem or we can end up in the same predicament that New Jersey is in. An April 16 New York Times article, “Ailing Pulaski Skyway Offers a Lesson in Creative Financing,” describes how Gov. Chris Christie had to stop a desperately needed congestion relief project and divert money to a failing 82-year-old bridge that is rusting away. We can pay a little now to stay ahead of the problem or pay a lot more later by refusing to act.

Johnny Anderson represents Utah's House District 34 and chairs the Transportation Committee.

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