As lawmakers dumped plans to borrow $1.6B for transportation, they inserted earmarks for pet projects in an existing bond

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Construction at the intersection of I-215 and Redwood Road, April 2, 2018.

In the final minutes of this year's Legislature, lawmakers killed a proposal to borrow a massive $1.6 billion to accelerate transportation projects.

But at the same time, they still made sure that a few specific projects will avoid the Utah Transportation Commission’s evaluation process that is designed to avoid politics and ensure that only the most worthwhile projects are funded.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, blasted the move to direct millions to a few lucky, politically connected projects.

“I just ask myself why do we have the state road commission?” Then he added sarcastically, “Let’s just do away with it. We up here in the Legislature can decide where the roads are going to be built.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

Still, SB268 passed the Senate 20-7 — with opposition only from rural lawmakers who complained their areas had no projects among the new earmarks. That came minutes after the House amended the bill and passed it on a 72-0 vote.

It now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for his consideration.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, sponsored the bill that initially sought to borrow the extra $1.6 billion, saying it would help the Utah Department of Transportation keep up with fast population growth in the state — and the Senate had approved that.

But Cullimore said late Thursday, “Essentially the House was not excited about bonding any money this year.” Also, the governor’s proposed budget had called for no new borrowing.

“So they have stricken all of that” in House amendments to the bill, Cullimore said.

But some of the projects earmarked to receive bond proceeds in the initial bill still were still ordered to receive money never spent from a previously approved bond.

UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras said the money is from a 2009 bond authorization to rebuild Interstate 15 in Utah County and construct early phases of the Mountain View Corridor in western Salt Lake County. “They were built on time and a little under budget, so we never used all of the authorization,” he said.

UDOT could not use the left-over funds, until now, because they had been limited by law to the I-15 and Mountain View Corridor projects.

New earmarks approved Thursday night include:

• $13 million to help develop a transit hub at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, told the House the project is needed to help handle congested ski resort traffic that traps her and neighbors on their streets during busy days.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Ski traffic was brisk at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon on Feb. 5, 2017.

• $28 million for transportation improvements needed to advance the new inland port in northwest Salt Lake City.

• $9 million to help build a new passenger terminal at Provo Airport. It was the final portion of $41 million needed for it. “I’m beyond excited about the Legislature’s bold decision to support Provo’s airport,” Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said in a statement Friday, especially praising House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, floor sponsor of the bill, for securing the money.

• $10 million for a project area in Weber County of the Military Installation Development Authority.

• $6 million for land acquisition, design and construction of an interchange project related to Shepard Lane in Davis County. That is in the district of Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and just outside the district of House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

• $4 million for land, design and construction of a project related to 1600 North in Orem, which Braceras said is a local street and not a state highway.

Separately, the bill would add $17 million to a state fund that makes transportation loans to local governments. It orders that the funding be used to loan $7 million to Midvale for an intermodal transportation facility and $10 million to the Military Installation Development Authority.

The bill also earmarks numerous city and county projects to receive money from a local-option sales tax in Salt Lake County with bonds that had been co-secured by the state.

Changes in the bill were not revealed until after 9 p.m. Thursday, and consideration was so quick afterward that Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, urged the House to vote for it because it had funding for a needed bridge over Coal Creek in his area — but actually that earmark had been stripped out of the amended bill.

Hillyard was unhappy not just because the bill had earmarks, but also because none of them were for his area.

“I didn't see any in northern Utah,” he said. “I don't know if I saw very many in Weber County or Davis County. I did see some in Salt Lake and Utah County.”

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, added, “I’m with Senator Hillyard, I don’t see anything south of Spanish Fork or east in my area at all, so I can’t support it.” Several rural senators without earmarks in their areas joined in voting against the bill.

Braceras, the UDOT director, said that despite the earmarks in the bill, he believes legislative leaders and the governor are “very committed to the process that is in place for the transportation commission to make those prioritizations .... The president of the Senate (Adams) was on our commission, and he understands that process.”