Salt Lake City is still in the running to become a regional air hub for federal prisoners being transported through a national airlift program, but crowded jail conditions in the Salt Lake area are slowing a final decision on the proposal.

Dan Dotson, chief deputy U.S. marshal for the District of Utah, said his office is continuing to seek jail space in the Salt Lake area where federal prisoners could be housed overnight during the transfer process.The program requires about 150-180 beds two nights per week and right now, that kind of space just isn't available, Dotson said. The U.S. Marshal's office has indicated it may be willing to help build the needed facilities but so far there have been no firm discussions. Dotson said federal participation will be dependent on congressional action this spring.

Earlier this year, the General Services Administration announced that seven North American Sabreliner twin-engine jets would be added to the U.S. Marshal Service program for transporting prisoners.

Currently, prisoners are transferred using two Boeing 727 jets. Once delivered to stopover points, including Salt Lake City, the prisoners are transported by ground vehicle to outlying areas. The Salt Lake office transports prisoners to Montana, Idaho, elsewhere in Utah, eastern Washington and Oregon. If Salt Lake becomes a hub, this territory could be expanded to include Wyoming and western South Dakota.

The modified Sabreliners would allow up to 10 prisoners to be transported at one time and the smaller jets could be used to fly into smaller airports, reducing reliance on ground transportation.

The present proposal calls for Salt Lake to become one of five regional hubs for the program.

Eugene Davis, U.S. marshal for the District of Utah, said up to $1 million may become available to help with local jail construction. Such aid, however, would require the receiving agency to commit to housing federal prisoners as needed.

No deadline has been set for making a decision.