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Road funds unfairly awarded in covert process

Published June 1, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

During our state's recent legislative session, Sanpete County was informed by the Utah Department of Transportation that a promised state highway expansion would need to be scaled back due to funding shortfalls.

At that same time, multiple Wasatch Front municipalities received special earmarks from the Utah State Legislature for new transportation projects. Ironically, we now live in a world where federal earmarks no longer exist but state earmarks do.

One prominent lobbyist who represents several of the municipalities receiving funds defended the practice by noting that all but one city in Salt Lake County received funding, therefore the process was fair. What that lobbyist failed to mention is that Utah has 28 other counties not named Salt Lake.

As The Salt Lake Tribune reported, 62 percent of that money was allocated for projects going to clients of lobbyists Greg Curtis, Rob Jolley, and David Stewart.

In my view, the act of lobbying isn't the problem but rather the lack of transparency in earmarking these transportation dollars. When a process of this nature is not transparent, insiders are the only people who know the new rules of the game. Everyone else is out of the loop and therefore unfairly prejudiced.

The established route through which cities and counties receive transportation funding on state roads within their jurisdiction is to approach the Utah Transportation Commission for prioritization. The commission ranks projects based on a predetermined set of criteria. Sanpete County did this and received approval to expand State Highway 89 between Ephraim and Manti.

Now, apparently, that process can be circumvented. If mom says no, you can always turn to dad.

When did the Legislature intend to inform cities and counties of this change? Before federal earmarks were eliminated, senators and representatives were required to disclose all earmark requests, not just those ultimately awarded funding. Is the state Legislature willing to abide by a similar threshold of disclosure?

If so, you will find that very few local governments applied for this funding because hardly anyone knew about it. I recognize that in rural Utah the Pony Express takes a while to deliver the mail. But in this particular case, I'm afraid no one bothered to send the message.

We deal with a finite amount of transportation money in this state. When one group circumvents the established process to acquire those funds, another project that has been vetted and promised funding must be delayed or ignored entirely.

Such is the case with Sanpete County. Our annual flood of summer tourists will continue to sit in unnecessary highway traffic — anyone who has attended the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant will understand.

Meanwhile the state's "highway" account now earmarks $3 million to improve sidewalks in Park City and $700,000 for a new pedestrian bridge across the Jordan River in West Valley City. Sidewalks and pedestrian bridges never counted as state "highway" projects before, but when you're writing the rules as you go, such oversight becomes all too common.

It is time for the Legislature to either end the practice of earmarking transportation projects or establish a fair, transparent process to decide how to disburse those funds in the future.

The status quo is unacceptable.

Jon Cox is a Republican county commissioner in Sanpete County.