State and federal highway officials can look back with pride at completing the interstate highway system in Utah. But they likely have mixed emotions about repairing and replacing freeways in the future, a private research organization said.
"The paradoxical situation arises from the fact that substantial stretches of the interstate, begun in the mid-1950s, are now in need of extensive rehabilitation and enlargement," the Utah Foundation said, "and at current prices the cost of these operations may significantly exceed original construction costs."The Utah Department of Transportation estimates today's cost of updating the 938 miles of freeway in the state at $4 million to $5 million per mile, compared to the $1 million-per-mile cost when the first Utah section was built in 1959.
The foundation said a Bush administration policy of shifting more highway maintenance responsibility onto the states will add to the financial burden.
"Utah highway officials say the state would fare as well or better under the presi-dent's plan as under any other plan so far advanced but recognize that the proposed increase in states' share of federal-state highway costs would put a severe strain on Utah's highway resources."
Congress hasn't debated Bush's highway funding scheme, which proposes a two-tier highway system - primary roads, including the interstate freeway and other federal connecting highways, and secondary roads on state and local systems.
Federal funding of the interstate freeway system would remain at 90 percent. But federal help under the proposal for other stretches of primary roads would decrease from 83 percent to 72 percent, and the federal obligation for secondary roads could drop to 60 percent.
Utah's favored status as a public lands state and an adjustment for sparsely populated states will help it obtain adequate funding, the foundation said.
But the proposed shift toward more state participation, particularly in secondary roads, could cause problems for Utah.
The foundation said UDOT has already run into financial trouble on the state level in funding a five-year construction schedule. It cited the Legislature this year slashing a $16.8 million request for the West Valley Highway to $5.5 million and never acting on a $20 million highway bonding proposal.
The bonding package was to be dealt with in the special session beginning Wednesday.
Another measure to delay expensive highway construction, UDOT has adopted a "preservation strategy" centered on keeping the highway system from deteriorating rather than planning extensive new construction, the foundation said.
But state highway officials said upon completion of the interstate system last November that a tax increase is inevitable to meet highway construction demands.
Don't expect UDOT, however, to lobby lawmakers into hiking taxes, the foundation said.
"UDOT officials choose to let motorists, who are becoming increasingly upset about traffic congestion in the corridor, bring pressure on their own legislators to initiate the needed action.
"Many observers hope that action will not be too long delayed, as engineering studies have shown that delay in needed highway rehabilitation can be extremely costly."