Utah's senators say they just jumped one of the biggest hurdles they faced for obtaining federal money for 2002 Olympics transportation projects.

The Senate on Wednesday passed an amendment by Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to allow the secretary of transportation to use his discretionary funds to help cities hosting an Olympics improve roads and mass transit.That was attached to a six-year highway reauthorization bill, which was also expected to pass on Thursday.

"Of the many hurdles we've faced to improve the state's transportation system, we're close to clearing one of the largest," Bennett said Thursday about the amendment and the overall bill to which it is attached.

Hatch added, "I am confident that with passage of this important legislation that Utah will have the federal support Utah deserves to assist us in preparing for the 2002 Olympic Games."

The senators fought for weeks to add the amendment to the Senate version of a bill to reauthorize the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act. Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, had previously added it to a House-passed version.

Its outlook had appeared dim earlier this month when Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater seemed to resist it in response to a Deseret News question during a round table with regional reporters in Washington.

When Slater was asked if he favored the amendment and thought it was needed, he said, "I don't think so. I think we can get there short of that."

He added, "Short of that kind of action, we've been a good partner with Salt Lake City, and we're going to continue to be a good partner."

Cook and Olympic officials then howled that Slater was reversing earlier support for the provision.

So Slater's spokesmen "clarified" that Slater was not opposing the amendment but merely meant it was not needed because the administration already planned to help Salt Lake City.

But Cook said Slater's predecessor, Federico Pena, had said he wanted to do more to help Atlanta with its 1996 Olympics but couldn't because of the lack of authority such an amendment would provide. So the Utah delegation continued to push it.

That is just one portion of the Senate's bill that excites the Utah delegation. Bennett said it gives "Utah an enormous boost in its annual highway construction allocation," which comes from federal gasoline taxes.

It authorizes the state to receive up to $1.3 billion over the next six years, and would increase annual highway formula funding for Utah from about $130 million a year to about $217 million a year.

Utah officials are banking on that to pay for reconstruction of I-15 and to help fund the Legacy Highway, for example.

The federal battles for Utah transportation are still far from over, however.

The House and Senate still must resolve differences in their versions of the bill to reauthorize highway and mass-transit spending. If they fail to do that by May 1 when a temporary bill expires, it would disrupt the flow of federal funding - and could bring delays in some of the planned Olympics-related projects.

Projects such as I-15 reconstruction and the TRAX light rail are bumping into federal spending caps. The new authorization bill would raise those caps.

Such authorization is only the first of a two-step process to receive money through Congress, however. The second is annual appropriations/budget fights, where Congress debates every year how much to give to specific projects up to the amount previously authorized.