Congress neared passage Friday of a huge 58 percent increase in federal highway spending for Utah - but that is much lower than earlier House and Senate actions had proposed.
House and Senate conferees finished a compromise that worked out differences in their versions of a massive highway spending bill. Both chambers were expected to pass it late in the day before Congress begins a weeklong Memorial Day recess.It revises highway funding formulas so that Utah would receive an average of $204.97 million a year for the next six years. That is 58 percent more than the $130 million it had been receiving.
However, the original House bill called for Utah to receive much more: $227 million a year in such funds. And even the original Senate bill called for Utah to receive $217 million annually.
Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, the only member of the Utah delegation on a transportation committee, explained why he felt the final numbers dropped lower than in both original bills.
"We did better in the House bill because I could fight for Utah as a member of the House Transportation Committee," he said - but the delegation had no one appointed as part of the House-Senate conference.
"In conference, the conferees were pressured to reduce overall spending. Certainly this was made easier for them by extremists in both parties and some media who continually labeled the bill as nothing but pork," Cook said.
Despite the reductions, Cook said the final compromise is still "great news for Utah. We will have all the money we need to finish I-15 without stripping other state budgets or raising taxes at home."
He said the final compromise will include $450 million for reconstruction of I-15.
Vicki Varela, spokesman for Gov. Mike Leavitt, said the governor was so pleased with the conference committee's decision he ordered Utah Department of Transportation executive director Tom Warne to take the weekend off. Warne has been working long hours to secure transportation funding for Utah.
"This is fantastic news," Varela said of the conference committee's agreement. "This really does culminate an incredible long-term effort by Tom, by Sen. Bennett, Congressman Cook and, of course, the governor, and it puts us just where we need to be."
Besides the increase in annual highway funding formulas, Cook's office said Utah will also receive $640 million over six years for mass transit.
With that money, the Utah Transit Authority could construct a west-east light-rail extension in Salt Lake City and build a commuter rail system between Brigham City and Payson.
The Wasatch Front Regional Council is refining cost estimates for both proposed projects, but preliminary studies show the 10.9-mile light-rail line from Salt Lake International Airport to the University of Utah would cost about $374 million. A commuter train network along the Wasatch Front probably would cost at least $200 million.
Wil Jefferies, executive director of the regional council, said the compromise bill may give Utah flexibility in how it uses other funds to match federal projects.
That, and language in the bill that allows the secretary of transportation to give more money to Olympic transportation projects, means it's possible west-east light rail could be entirely paid for with federal money, Jefferies said. UTA, however, still would need an increase in local public funding - probably through a voter-approved tax increase - to operate both west-east light rail and the commuter rail system.