A bill to block an attempt by Salt Lake City leaders to use airport improvement revenues to fund a portion of a light-rail line to the airport was narrowly approved by a Senate committee on Friday.
The city has to come up with $35 million to help pay for the $290 million TRAX line linking the airport to downtown. But Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, wants to make sure the city doesn't divert airport improvement funds.
"Airport funds should not be used for light rail, ever," said Bramble. "That poses a problem, particularly at an airport where we have a western hub."
Lawmakers are trying to keep Delta Airlines happy, in an effort to keep the company's hub in Salt Lake City. Delta Airlines officials don't want the airport improvement fund raided for light rail, and "I'm not aware of any other industry that is being asked to put a disproportionate share into light rail" said Rob Jolley, a lobbyist for the airline.
"The banking industry hasn't been asked to do that, the real estate industry hasn't been asked to do that," Jolley said.
Then, he sent a clear warning to lawmakers to keep Delta happy, or else.
"The more you take away from the airport, the less secure you make that hub," Jolley said.
Later, he backed off, saying only that with less funding, the airline would offer a reduced level of service to its Salt Lake City customers.
Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker questioned whether blocking the funds is "an appropriate state role here."
The city, which owns and operates the airport, already is under "very strict oversight and regulatory control" of the Federal Aviation Administration, Becker said.
"(The FAA) looks very closely at things like how airport revenues are used and makes sure that the airport is protected," he said.
The city doesn't have an extra $35 million in its general fund to foot the bill, so Becker asked that if SB245 is approved, the Legislature provide an alternate source of funding for the TRAX line.
Bramble's bill also includes a provision that would allow Utah County to use tourism and recreation dollars for airport improvements, namely radar. The fund is typically used to build convention centers and recreational facilities, but Bramble wants to include airport improvements as a possible recipient of TRCC revenues.
And, technically, Salt Lake County leaders also could use that provision of the bill to divert tourism and recreation dollars to the light-rail line."It's called prioritization of scarce resources," Bramble said in an earlier interview.