It could be a road to nowhere, but state senators appear willing to follow President Lane Beattie down the path of highway abandonment.

The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a concept championed by Beattie, R-West Bountiful, and feared by city and county officials across the state.SB176 would transfer a sizable majority - about 4,200 miles - of state-maintained roads into the hands of local governments on July 1, 1999.

Only interstates and highways now designated as U.S. routes, plus a few other roads Beattie plans to throw in, would remain under the jurisdiction of the Utah Department of Transportation. Many of UDOT's 1,800 employees would no longer be needed by the department.

Local governments would receive a share of state road money to maintain, rebuild and remove snow from the roads to be transferred.

Exactly how much money? The bill leaves that decision up to lawmakers - specifically, members of the interim Transportation Committee.

Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, joked that the interim committee, scheduled to meet eight times between the end of this session and the start of the next, might have to meet once a week to make any headway on how to divide and distribute the road money. A task force worked for two years on the same issue and could not reach a consensus.

Several senators expressed opposition to the measure Wednesday. But after a soothing talk from Beattie, the Senate voted 27-0 to approve the bill after its first debate. A final debate and passage over to the House could occur Thursday.

Beattie said the interim committee may or may not be able to resolve the funding issue. It could take three years for any agreement to be reached and for the roads to be transferred, he said.

Sen. John Holmgren, R-Bear River City, is sponsoring the bill on Beattie's behalf. He said it just makes sense for local governments to be in control of the roads that run through their communities.

"This is not a bill that in any way finalizes even the movement of the roads or the funding. That will be looked at," Holmgren said. "What we're trying to do here is pick a body that can listen to all sides and then come back to this body with a suggestion of what to do."

Beattie said UDOT employees are not going to lose their jobs overnight without an alternative. What to do about UDOT personnel also will be considered by the interim committee, he said.

Local government officials have said there are advantages to taking control of some state roads but only if they are given enough money to adequately maintain them.

Sen. Nathan Tanner, R-Ogden, said the bill may be premature and worried that road issues, like a "problem child," have inappropriately dominated the Legislature's attention.

"It frames the debate. It says here are the roads we're talking about," Beattie said of the bill. "Next session, we'll come back and then we'll know a lot more."