Electric shuttles at Zion, expanded FrontRunner, more streetlights — Here’s a look at earmarks pushed by Utah’s House members

Some, but not all, of these projects, are expected to be approved by Congress.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The FrontRunner commuter train nears the South Jordan Station on Thursday, May 6, 2021. Utah’s U.S. House members released the list of projects for which they want to earmark funding. The one all four agreed on was a request for $5 million to expand service on FrontRunner commuter trains.

South Salt Lake could get hundreds of new streetlights. Electric shuttles could bring tourists to Zion National Park’s sleepy east entrance. The FrontRunner commuter line could expand its service. Foster children could gain a new path to attend the University of Utah.

These are but four of the projects Utah’s House members are supporting as Congress resurrects the controversial process known as earmarks.

Their Senate counterparts — Mike Lee and Mitt Romney — refuse to participate, worried that funneling money to pet projects back home is wasteful and noting that Congress banned this 10 years ago after scandals resulted in some lawmakers going to prison.

But Democrats and Republicans are still bringing back earmarks, arguing Congress’ role is to pass budgets and that lawmakers know the needs of the areas they represent. This allows representatives and senators to directly take credit for certain projects. Rep. John Curtis said reviving earmarks wouldn’t have been his preference, but once it happened “part of my responsibility to represent my constituents was to participate in that process.”

Utah’s four House members, all Republicans, are seeking earmarks. They’ve submitted letters explaining why they think the projects are worth taxpayer money and declaring they won’t financially benefit.

Here’s what happens next: Congress will set aside 1% of domestic spending for these pet projects. The appropriation committee, which includes Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, will do some sifting. Each lawmaker will get some earmarks through; others will go unfunded.

“We just hope it works out for the best,” said Ephraim Mayor John Scott. Stewart is sponsoring six earmarks in all, and two are aimed at Ephraim, a central Utah city of about 7,000 residents.

Stewart wants $3 million to help replace 60-year-old pipes that deliver drinking water from springs in the mountains east of Ephraim. The congressman is seeking another $4 million to put in a traffic light and a new road connecting Highway 89 to an industrial park, where investors aim to attract high-tech companies.

Stewart’s office reached out to the city, Scott said. And Ephraim officials worked with a lobbying group to craft their proposals. The representative hasn’t promised that Ephraim’s earmarks would make the cut, but the mayor is excited that he has the backing of the influential lawmaker.

“We are hoping against hope,” Scott said, “because these projects are so integral to the progress of Ephraim as a city.”

Curtis isn’t exactly sure how the process will unfold and it will be subject to House and Senate negotiations. He approached the applications with an eye to where the federal government has a responsibility. One earmark proposal that has stuck with him is a request to fund cancer screenings in San Juan County.

“It will break your heart to go down there and talk to people in these communities where we had uranium mining and things. And you see this high incidence of cancer,” he said.

Utah’s former senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, secured federal funding for such tests years ago. Curtis seeks more than $500,000 to revive the effort.

“That’s a role the federal government should be playing. It’s one where we have a responsibility,” Curtis said. “And by the way, we can actually save money if we catch this early; let alone saving lives and livelihoods.”

Earmark foes

Since the earmark letters became public, Fox News created lists of what it called “eye-popping” requests. Stewart appeared Thursday on Fox News and defended earmarks against complaints that they amount to unnecessary spending that adds to the national debt.

Dubbing himself “a deficit hawk,” Stewart said, “earmarks are not the problem. They’re only 1% of our spending.”

Fox News hosts are far from the only earmark skeptics.

Lee, Utah’s senior senator, has been one of the most outspoken critics. He came to office in 2011, the year Congress banned them.

The GOP senator recently called earmarks “one of the most shameful practices in Congress,” and he rejected the argument that including the relatively small projects has helped Congress craft bigger bipartisan deals.

Romney has sided with Lee, saying earmarks are “rife with waste and abuse.”

The two signed a letter that said, “We will not participate in an inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse.”

So, in Utah, the only avenue for an injection of direct federal cash is through the House, and the state’s representatives received a healthy dose of applications.

“There’s interest from the 10 counties that I represent and other organizations throughout the state,” freshman Rep. Blake Moore said recently. “They’re submitting requests in a very open and transparent way.”

This past week, lawmakers posted the projects they support on their websites. And there’s one earmark that has the backing of all four Utah representatives. That’s $5 million to help expand the Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner commuter train that now runs from Ogden to Provo, including adding a second track that would boost the speed and frequency of the trains. It is part of a much larger project. The state has chipped in $300 million, and UTA plans to seek another $38 million from the federal government during the next few years.

Here is a look at some of the other requests backed by Utah’s House members.

Rep. Chris Stewart

Beyond the two requests for Ephraim, Stewart is seeking $2 million to start an electric shuttle system in Kane County that would ferry tourists into Zion National Park’s east entrance. This is just one part of a broader plan to ease the pressure on the more traditional route into Zion through Springdale. Efforts are underway to create a new visitor center at the east entrance along with a lodge, expanded trails and possibly a theater.

Stewart’s earmarks would also replace an aging and leaky water tank in Centerville and expand an industrial road in Cedar City.

Rep. John Curtis

Most of Curtis’ earmarks focus on upgrading trails, bridges and streets. This includes funding for a new sidewalk outside of Peruvian Park Elementary School in Sandy; a better walkway between Helper’s Main Street and the Price River; and an expanded trail outside of Moab along the Colorado River.

Curtis is also pursuing $400,000 to expand parking and build a new restroom at Neff’s Canyon trailhead, a project sought after by Millcreek City.

He wants $5 million to help Utah State University build a system to charge electric semitrucks at the inland port, the massive fledgling project planned in western Salt Lake City.

Rep. Blake Moore

Four of Moore’s earmarks are aimed at Utah colleges, including $1 million to enroll more people who were in foster care at the U. He also is seeking $700,000 to create a new Institute for Land, Water and Air at Utah State University, which would focus on research to inform policymakers.

Moore is seeking money to spruce up Vernal’s Main Street and to create an app for Cache Valley residents to track buses. He is hoping for more money to expand the Ogden-Hinckley Airport and to add trails on the western side of Hill Air Force Base.

Rep. Burgess Owens

South Salt Lake wants $4 million to add at least 800 streetlights. In his letter supporting the project, Owens said this would help fight crime in a city that now houses a homeless resource center.

Owens also backs earmarks to add security fencing around Camp Williams, clean up contaminated soil in Herriman, and allow wastewater in Eagle Mountain to be used at parks.

He is Utah’s only lawmaker to seek an earmark for a nonprofit. He wants $300,000 to go to Saffron Kitchen, which is the nonprofit arm of a chain of Indian restaurants. The funding would pay refugees, who are learning how to work in Utah’s food service industry.

And Owens is seeking an earmark for the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City to fund a “human rights housing project,” which would provide shelter for people affected by human trafficking, such as child labor, prostitution and indentured servitude.