Congress gave Utah huge-but-less-than-expected increases in transportation money Friday and unique power to spend mass transit money for highways and vice versa.
No other state can mix such funds, but Utah leaders told Congress they need the flexibility to finish projects such as the TRAX light rail and I-15 reconstruction before the 2002 Olympics.That flexibility, along with more than $1.8 billion in transportation money for Utah over six years, came as both houses approved a long-fought transportation bill, finally pounded out by House and Senate negotiators just before the Memorial Day recess.
The Senate passed the bill 88-5, and the House passed it 297-86. President Clinton said he will likely sign it, even though he had threatened a veto last week if earlier proposed spending amounts were not cut.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said weeks of pleading, including several late-night meetings this week, finally gave Utah the right to combine all types of transportation funding and spend it as needed on an Olympic "program of projects."
"We're not getting any projects to which we are not entitled. But maybe we're getting them a little faster than we would have otherwise because they need to be in place in time for the Olympics," Bennett said.
He said that flexibility lets Utah officials spend available money where needed without worrying about restrictions. That will speed construction.
The House had included such flexibility in its original bill, but the Senate had opposed it.
Bennett said the Utah delegation was able to persuade Senate negotiators to accept the flexibility because it is needed for the Olympics. There was some precedence, as Georgia had been given similar authority for the Atlanta Olympics.
But Senate negotiators made clear, Bennett said, that it wants the flexibility only for the Salt Lake Olympics - and no other future U.S. games. "I didn't care," he said.
The bill revises highway funding formulas so that Utah will receive $204.97 million a year for the next six years - for a total of $1.22 billion.
Bennett and Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, said they were told the thick bill, printed only hours before it was quickly passed, also contains $640 million for Utah in mass transit funding.
On top of that, it gives the U.S. secretary of Transportation authority to use his discretionary funds to help Olympics projects as needed if other funds do not cover costs. It orders him to give the Olympics his highest priority for such funds.
The $204.97 million in annual highway funding is a 58 percent increase over the $130 million average that the state has been receiving in recent years.
But it is still much less than officials thought they would be receiving. That's because the original House bill would have given the state $227 million a year, and the Senate bill would have given it $217 million. The compromise gave less than either.
Cook said Utah was hurt by not having any members appointed as conferees. And Bennett added that the Clinton administration and others pushed hard to reduce overall spending in the bill.
The House bill also originally included $75 million extra for "high priority projects" in Utah, while the Senate and Clinton administration had opposed any such funding for any state as pork barrel politics. Only $7.85 million survived in the final bill.
Bennett said that amounts to a little extra head start money for a handful of projects, including the Atkinville I-15 interchange near St. George, the Cache Valley Highway, some road widening projects in Salt Lake County and Provo and the construction of the Brown's Park Road in Uinta County.
The bill also raises the previous spending caps on such projects as I-15 reconstruction and TRAX light rail. Without that, the projects would soon have bumped into the caps.
Passage of the bill does not end all fights for federal money for Utah transportation, but it was by far the largest obstacle faced.