Why did the train loaded with nuclear waste cross the road?

If Gov. Mike Leavitt has his way, that joke won't need a punch line. The train won't be able to cross and the joke will be on proponents of a proposed high-level nuclear waste storage facility.In a move clearly designed to thwart the storage of such waste on Goshute Indian tribal lands, Leavitt's state transportation commissioners took possession of two Tooele County roads Thursday.

The commission, whose seven members are appointed by the governor, voted unanimously to transfer ownership of routes 900 and 901 from Tooele County to the state.

"You'll remember that the governor, in his state of the state address, talked about how we'd build a moat out there if we had to" to stop the waste site, Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Tom Warne told the commission.

"Well, we're talking about the moat here today."

The roads are strategically located on either end of a planned 15-mile rail spur that could be used to transport shipments to the proposed repository.

Tribal leaders and Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of out-of-state utility companies, are seeking federal permission to build the facility.

"Provisions in state law say no one can construct a rail line across a road without permission of the Department of Transportation," UDOT Deputy Director Clint Topham told the commission prior to its vote Thursday.

Initially, UDOT officials thought that because the track would cross several county roads, the spur could be stopped without the need for state control of the county roads.

But an attorney, Topham said, pointed out that if Tooele County abandoned those roads, the state would no longer have that control under law. So, Thursday's action was taken -- more than three months after Goshute leaders and PFS announced they would build the rail spur.

The track was conceived as a way to circumvent action taken a year ago when the state Legislature took over control of the Skull Valley Road.

State lawmakers also must approve Thursday's transfer by the commission, and are expected to do so. Further, a bill sponsored by Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, would approve the transfer but allow Tooele County to maintain the two roads and receive state funds to pay for that work, as is now the case.

"They (Tooele officials) could not abandon the roads nor change classification of the roads without permission of the department," Topham said of the proposed leg- islation.

"I've met with the people from Tooele County and they are not happy that the governor interferes in what they feel is their affair out there with the road. But they accept the fact that this would probably be least disruptive to them and agreed they would not come and oppose this today."

The Legislature has the authority to place a county road in the state system without the commission's approval, but it historically has not done so, Topham said.

Commissioners wondered if their action could really prevent the storage facility from being constructed.

"I'm still not convinced the feds can't force this on us," Commissioner Stephen Bodily said. "If they are determined to make that a repository, they will find a way to do it, despite anything we do."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of examining environmental and public safety issues of the Goshute proposal. Public hearings on whether a nuclear-waste storage facility should be permitted in Tooele County could begin late this year or in early 2000.