The Utah Department of Transportation would like to expand Redwood Road to four lanes. They would like to expand 54th South, 62nd South and 90th South. They would like to expand I-15 to 12 lanes of traffic.
In fact, there are literally hundreds of highway construction and rehabilitation projects totaling more than $1 billion that UDOT said need to be built over the next five years.But most of those projects will likely be deferred for years, some even into the next century, if the 5-cent per gallon gasoline tax increase, passed by the 1987 Legislature, is rolled back in a November voter referendum.
"Those projects will be done some day," said UDOT director Gene Findlay. "But it will be a long time before they are ever started. The question is whether the state can afford to wait that long."
Proponents of the tax rollback say UDOT can wait. In fact, they say UDOT didn't need the additional revenue in the first place.
"I don't agree (with UDOT) that the roads are falling apart or that we need new highways," said Greg Beesley, chairman of the Utah Tax Limitation Coalition. "In my way of thinking, they don't need it. They haven't demonstrated a need. It's a boondoggle."
Beesley, citing what he called several wasteful highway projects, claims UDOT is one of the fattest departments in state government. Proper management of fiscal resources could save the department $40 million a year that could be directed to the most critical highway projects, he said.
Findlay said the Tax Limitation Coalition doesn't understand the UDOT budget or how it works. Not only did the Legislature mandate that every cent of the money generated by the 5-cent gasoline tax increase go to highway maintenance and rehabilitation, but competitive bidding practices with private contractors ensure the state gets the most for its highway dollar.
Findlay invited tax limitation proponents to audit the department's use of transportation funds. "That money is going just where the Legislature told us to put it," he said.
Because one of the tax initiatives directly targets the 5-cent gasoline tax, UDOT would experience deeper cuts than any other state department.
The revenue from the gasoline tax, by law, goes to the transportation fund to pay for all road projects.
Findlay said revenues lost if the initiative passes would total $40 million, $10 million of which is currently funneled to cities and towns. The other $30 million is being used for state highway projects.
Of that $30 million, $15 million is used for highway rehabilitation and $10 million is used to augment maintenance and repair funds. The other $5 million is used for highway projects with matching federal funds.
The federal government matches the state funds on a 90 percent federal-10 percent state split. If the state cuts the $5 million from those federal projects, it also loses $45 million in federal matching funds.
"What we're looking at now is just how to balance this out," said Findlay. "It's a safe bet $25 million will have to be cut from construction and maintenance, but can we afford to lose the federal match if we cut the other $5 million? If we don't (cut there), can we afford to cut $5 million more from construction and maintenance? Then we would be in worse shape than before the tax increase."
Over the past decade, Findlay said Utah's roads have continued to deteriorate. About 30 percent of them were in "poor" condition in the 1970s, and now 50 percent of roads fit that classification. The 5-cent gas tax increase was designed to reverse the trend toward escalating deterioration.
"We've started to reverse that trend over the last year, but if we lose the funds, it's going to get worse and worse," Findlay said.
Sen. Jack Bangerter, R-Bountiful, one of the most ardent opponents of the gasoline tax increase, said there has been no noticeable improvement in the condition of Utah highways after the tax increase.
"The money we got out of the increase probably didn't go onto the roads, but to somewhere else in the budget," said Bangerter. "The transportation fund is a giant sieve into programs other than highways."
But Bangerter, who supports the rollback, admits it is too late to correct the 5-cent gasoline tax increase. Even if the tax is rolled back, it is doubtful fuel outlets will lower their prices.
"I think the damage has been done," he said.
A cut of $40 million to $80 million in UDOT revenues would undoubtedly mean a deferment of major road projects. UDOT has prepared a three-tiered priority list of construction projects that need to be done over the next five years.
The "priority one" projects, those that absolutely need to be done as soon as possible, total more than $1 billion. Even with the 5-cent gasoline tax increase of 1987, anticipated revenues would address only $550 million of those projects, or about 55 percent.
To cut the 5-cent increase from total revenues would lower the five-year revenue total to about $380 million, meaning only about 38 percent of the state's highest priority road projects will be funded.
Which projects could be on the chopping block?
Findlay said the widening of Redwood Road to four lanes; the widening of east-west corridors in Salt Lake County; the widening of Sardine Canyon and the widening of Provo Canyon; and the construction of the West Valley Highway and 56th West highway would probably be deferred.
"And there would be a definite impact on I-15 widening," Findlay said, saying I-15 corridor improvements alone will total more than $300 million over five years. "The priority needs in just Salt Lake County total $600 million, and it would be doubtful we could address those needs."
"We just don't need it," Beesley countered. "I'm sure there are projects that need to be done, but $1 billion is really pushing believability."
But UDOT must provide an adequate transportation network, said Findlay. "I don't know that we can do that with only one-third the money we need to address the highest priority projects."