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Obama stimulus plan: Utah revs up $11B wish list for roads

Published December 3, 2008 6:25 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The $3.9 billion in road projects that Utah shelved for lack of funds last month are potholes compared with what the state could pave with an envisioned federal economic-stimulus package.

Try $11 billion -- or nearly double what any other state has said it's ready to start within the three-month window when Congress hopes to create jobs with the spending push.

The Beehive State has that much work -- including a potential doubling of the stalled Interstate 15 project in Utah County to stretch 40 miles -- ready to go if President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus plan passes this winter, Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director John Njord told the Utah Transportation Commission on Wednesday.

"We are uniquely prepared in our state to move forward with projects," Njord said.

Next in line is Texas, with about $6 billion in requests that could immediately create jobs with federal money.

The list Utah will submit for funding stretches statewide -- from a bypass in Logan to a parkway in St. George. Commissioner Kent Millington said Utah's ready-to-build projects should help secure the state's funding slot because federal officials want immediate results.

Utah is in its enviable position because its roads program was moving at top speed with state funding until it skidded to a halt last month with the souring economy. Environmental planning was complete and permits were in hand -- prerequisites that could take other states months longer to complete.

UDOT delayed all projects not yet under contract because sales taxes nose-dived and might not cover the bonds needed to build the roads. Among the casualties were 20 miles of I-15 widening at a cost of $2.6 billion and initial work on the Mountain View freeway through the western Salt Lake Valley. Another $2 billion in work -- including Interstate 80 -- is under contract and continuing.

The I-15 project's first phase was to span only from American Fork to Highway 6 at Spanish Fork, although environmental permitting is complete to push the project all the way north to Sandy and south to Santaquin. With federal stimulus cash, UDOT could build the entire project at a cost of $5 billion.

Wednesday's commission meeting was a stark juxtaposition of economic crisis and potential cash windfall. Construction and engineering companies filled the chamber with dozens of employees worried about job losses while commissioners alternated discussing the dire local funding outlook and the bright prospects in Washington.

If Congress rejects a stimulus package or does not steer it to Utah, the state Legislature would have to decide what to do with I-15 and the rest of the $3.9 billion in stalled projects. Al Schellenberg of the Associated General Contractors of Utah said member companies would back a 10-cent hike to the state's 24.5 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax when the session starts next month.

The announced construction delays could have severe job effects without either federal replacement funds or new state revenues, Schellenberg warned. "It's created some panic in our industry."

Commissioners asked Njord whether a gas-tax increase seemed politically feasible. It could be tough, he answered, though there is discussion of making the tax a percentage of the price instead of a hard number per gallon. That would allow the state to rake in more as the price rises, although Njord said there would have to be a cap so that the state doesn't scoop up a windfall when prices surge.

Some of the commissioners chided UDOT for announcing the construction stoppage without consulting them. The public may believe the commission prioritized projects and killed big ones such as I-15, when it did not, Commissioner Stephen Bodily said.

Department officials said they needed to act quickly to keep from racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded work and assured commissioners they would be the ones to prioritize projects for restarting if either federal or state money arrives.

bloomis@sltrib.com