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Legislative leaders back away from borrowing to pay for transit and construction

Senate Republicans refused to borrow more than $1B.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The Clearfield FrontRunner station is shown in this July 7, 2017, file photo. Lawmakers are coming to agreement on a big investment in transit and construction after Senate Republicans turned thumbs down on a proposal to borrow $1 billion.

Republican House leaders are backing off their plans to borrow more than $1 billion to fund transportation and transit projects after Senate Republicans balked at adding that much to Utah’s debt.

A new substitute version of HB433 drops the amount of money the state will borrow to fund a number of transit projects from $1.4 billion to $264 million. The change also increases the amount of one-time money they’ll use to fund those transit projects to nearly $1 billion. The House approved the transit funding package on Tuesday afternoon unanimously.

The original proposal from House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, cost a total of $2.26 billion. The new plan has a much lower target of $1.234 billion.

The state still plans to use $200 million from the bonds plus another $100 million in cash to pay for double-tracking sections of the FrontRunner commuter rail. The new version of the bill adds $12 million to pay for improvements to the S-Line streetcar in Salt Lake City.

The lower bond amount funds transit projects only. The previous proposal allocated over $1 billion in debt to pay for several road projects. However, despite the lower amount of debt, none of those road projects will be left undone. Legislators accomplish that goal by depositing more than $760 million into the state’s Transportation Investment Fund and lengthening the timeline for completion by one year to 2030.

“We address needs in every area,” said Schultz. “While the needs are certainly bigger than the dollar amounts that we have available, and I wish we could do more with this, it does make infrastructure improvements in every area of the state.”

The markedly lower amount of borrowing stems from unease among Republican Senate leaders who felt it was more fiscally prudent to pay cash for many of those construction projects instead of borrowing.

“The best use for one-time money is on one-time expenses like infrastructure. That’s what we’re doing,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton on Tuesday afternoon.

The new version of the plan still includes $36 million to pay for the new Utah Raptor and Lost Creek state parks, as well as $67.5 million to pay for maintenance and improvements at existing state parks. However, those expenses have already been funded in other parts of the budget, which frees up cash for other projects. Those projects are seen by legislative leaders as a way to boost the economy in rural parts of the state.

The latest version of the bill creates a brand new account to pay for public transit or transportation projects in the Cottonwood Canyons in Salt Lake City. The new Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Investment Fund would be made up of appropriations from the Legislature, private donations and grants. The new fund could conceivably pay for a proposed cog rail line or gondola to reduce traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“This is an important need we have in the state. We recognize that people love to recreate in the Cottonwood canyons, and the road going up and down is at capacity,” said Schultz.

He explained the Utah Department of Transportation is currently studying which mode of transportation would be best to alleviate congestion.

“Once the study is done, the Legislature will look at it and then use the funds in the account to solve that problem,” added Schultz.

No money has been appropriated to the new account yet.

The bill now moves to the Senate where legislative rules require it to pass by the end of Wednesday night.

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