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Utah could lose $400M in transportation funds

Published April 30, 2014 9:33 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah could lose more than $400 million in federal funding for highways and mass transit next year if Congress does not act quickly to stop the Highway Trust Fund from going broke in the next few months.

That's according to a study released Wednesday by Transportation for America, a nonpartisan group that pushes investment in transportation. Utah officials give similar, separate estimates.

They come as the Obama administration sent to Congress on Tuesday a four-year, $304 billion transportation bill to try to fix the trust fund that provides most federal transportation funding.

Transportation for America's report estimates that if Congress does not pass a new transportation bill, it will create a $46.8 billion hole in state and local budgets nationwide for projects that otherwise would have begun next year, with $406.7 million of that in Utah.

For just highways — and not counting mass transit — the Utah Department of Transportation says the state could lose about $307.5 million if Congress does not pass a new transportation bill by Sept. 30.

Of that amount, "UDOT is set to receive $246.4 million. The remaining $61.1 million is distributed to local governments," said UDOT spokesman John Gleason.

"Federal funding primarily affects our [road] preservation projects," he said. "We would still maintain our state funding, around $260 million, and be able to address capacity and maintenance projects" to fix, widen or build new roads.

"We are still moving forward with all of our planned projects," Gleason said. "Utah has faced this situation before, and we are optimistic that Congress will reach a solution ... before it affects or delays any of our projects."

The Utah Transit Authority did not provide similar estimates on how lack of a new transportation bill might affect mass transit, saying it expects Congress to pass such a bill.

"It is too early to say how Congress will act in regard to the transportation bill," said Steve Meyer, UTA chief capital development officer. "If it doesn't pass [the bill], a continuation of current funding is likely as has happened in the past."

The UTA board has adopted a goal of obtaining $75 million in federal grants this year.

Utah may be in better position than most states to ride out uncertain federal funding because it recently shifted to depend increasingly on local funding.

Between 2001 and 2012, federal money provided 34.6 percent of Utah transportation budgets — the lowest in any state, according to the Transportation for American study.

Utah used borrowing through bonding to build entirely with local funding such projects as the massive Interstate 15 rebuild in Utah County and the new Mountain View Corridor highway. UTA similarly built some of its new rail projects with large portions of local funding.

The federal Highway Trust Fund is projected to run dry sometime before the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30 (when the current transportation bill expires), and perhaps as early as July.

It is in trouble for several reasons. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not increased since 1993, but costs have risen. People now drive less, and cars get better mileage — decreasing money going to the fund. In recent years, Congress has supplemented the highway account from the general fund to make ends meet.

Obama's proposal would not raise the gasoline tax, but would provide $150 billion beyond what that tax generates by revising businesses taxes to close loopholes. It would also loosen tolling restrictions on interstates to encourage states to use tolls to raise more money.

For their part, Utah officials are studying raising local taxes to improve local transportation. Bills in the Legislature failed this year that would have raised the state's gasoline tax of 24.5 cents a gallon — last raised in 1997 — and would have allowed voters to consider raising sales taxes for mass transit.