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Transportation earmarks cause some heartburn

Published February 22, 2013 6:50 pm

Transportation • Funding requests pile higher than money available.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Most local transportation projects go through rigorous review and prioritization by the Utah Transportation Commission before funding. But a few legislators sought to circumvent that Friday for four projects by seeking earmarks in appropriation bills.

But seeking state highway money for such things as a park bridge, a pedestrian tunnel and a canyon entrance parking lot caused some heartburn for both the Utah Department of Transportation and chairmen of the Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Committee.

UDOT Executive Director John Njord said in an interview that UDOT reminds lawmakers that state transportation money is supposed to go to state highways, and was concerned that some of the earmarks strayed too far from that.

So the committee cochairmen, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, and Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, announced they decided that if appropriators fund any of the four requested earmarks, the money will come from general funds instead of transportation funds.

Harper explained that lawmakers usually do "not tell the [Transportation] Commission what to do with their fund once they get it."

Among funding requested was $393,000 to build a suspension bridge for pedestrians to connect the Jordan River Parkway with West Valley City's Cultural Celebration Center. That request was filed by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, and Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

Adams, a former chairman of the Transportation Commission, defended seeking such an earmark saying that funding formulas used by the panel occasionally do not measure well the social need of some projects that are important — so occasional earmark requests are appropriate.

Current Transportation Commission Chairman Jeff Holt said in an interview that he would prefer that all projects go through its review process because its formulas slice through politics to ensure that the most needed projects are funded first. However, he says he does not mind a few earmarks "as long as it doesn't get out of hand."

Also requested was $1.2 million to widen 7200 South from four lanes to six between I-15 and 700 West. It was sought by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

Eliason also asked for $750,000 for a new parking lot at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, sought $700,000 for a pedestrian/bicycle tunnel under I-215 at about 5100 South in Taylorsville. Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, told the committee that project would better connect communities and trails.

The committee plans to work on prioritization of requests over the weekend, Harper said.