Because the U.S. Congress seems ready to pony up extra millions of dollars for Utah roads, the West Davis Highway very possibly won't be a toll road.
Gov. Mike Leavitt, speaking at his monthly KUED Channel 7 news conference Thursday, said the very good news coming out of the U.S. House and Senate this week means the controversial highway near the Great Salt Lake may not be a toll road after all.It's the first time the governor, who has steadfastly stood by the toll road option, gave hints that the road will be built without a direct user fee.
In December, Tom Warne, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation and the man Leavitt hand-picked to oversee massive road building projects in the state over the next 10 years, told Utah legislative leaders that the West Davis Highway wouldn't be built without toll revenues.
But the Leavitt administration has been receiving increasing opposition to the toll road idea from Davis County legislators. Those include House Majority Whip Kevin Garn, R-Layton, and Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful.
The proposed highway, in fact, runs just behind the multi-acre "ranchette" that Beattie recently built in the lake-front flats of West Bountiful.
Beattie supports the road, but he and other Davis County legislators have expressed dismay at the idea of the four-lane highway requiring tolls.
The freeway system in Utah was built without a single toll road. In fact, there isn't one in the state. And Davis County legislators say it isn't fair for their county residents to pay state gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, both of which support roads, and then pay tolls on one of only three highways moving traffic into the Salt Lake Valley from Davis County.
Leavitt, UDOT and legislators planned financing for the Centennial Highway Fund, which includes rebuilding of I-15 in Salt Lake County and the West Davis Highway, anticipating $450 million in additional federal funds. That number looked very shaky late last year.
But in the past week, first the U.S. Senate and then a House road committee approved transportation spending plans that call for much more spending in Utah than the $450 million earlier anticipated. The House Transportation Committee, with Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, a sitting member, adopted a plan that gives Utah $208.6 million a year over several years.
The Senate as a whole, with Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, leading the charge, passed a measure that would give the state $217 million more a year. Cook says the measures mean the state, at least, will get more than $200 million a year over the next six years.
"There's the possibility that (the extra federal money) can change the (West Davis Highway) funding equation," Leavitt said Thursday while praising the efforts of fellow Republicans Cook and Bennett.
The federal spending plan isn't final yet. Both the House and Senate must approve the same bill, so some compromises must be found.
"The West Davis Highway will be built," said Leavitt. He added that arguments between state highway officials, the federal Corps of Engineers and environmentalists over the exact route of the highway will be resolved.
On April 7, UDOT will recommend an alignment for the road. The state Transportation Commission can reject or accept that alignment and then the federal government must approve the route because of wetlands impacts.
"In some cases, the proposed routes are less than 100 yards apart. We will work this out," said Leavitt.