As time runs out on the 2022 general session, Utah lawmakers are working behind the scenes to craft a massive transit infrastructure bill that could be worth as much as $1 billion.
The problem is figuring out how to pay for it.
Transportation spending, primarily focusing on road construction and public transit, is possible because of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed by Congress.
Utah received approximately $1.5 billion in federal money through ARPA, but there are restrictions on how it can be spent. The idea: find places where ARPA funds can replace existing revenue in the general fund, which then frees up money for the transit bill.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, explains it’s not as simple as just plugging the money into the budget.
“We cannot use all those ARPA funds for whatever we want. That’s why we’ve put it into water projects and other things,” Stevenson said.
That ability to free up cash for infrastructure needs without pulling from another pot of money is a unique opportunity. There is not enough extra money in the general fund to cover the scope of the projects lawmakers are hoping to include in the bill without the federal money.
“We will never be able to do this much again,” said a legislative source with knowledge of the infrastructure discussions, but who was not authorized to comment.
The boost in funding will go a long way to addressing Utah’s transportation needs, but it still is not enough to cover every need. The base budget for transportation in Utah this year is about $2.8 billion. Additional transportation-related budget requests accounted for another $1.2 billion in one-time money and $800,000 in ongoing funds.
Utah added half a million new residents between 2010 and 2020, a combination of people moving here and Utahns having children. That’s an 18.4% growth rate, the fastest in the nation.
And as such, Utah lawmakers have recently been on a transportation spending spree.
In 2021, they passed a $1.23 billion transit package that included $264 billion in bonds to double-track portions of the FrontRunner commuter rail. That proposal was pared down from its initial $2.26 billion price tag after Republicans in the Senate balked at borrowing $1.4 billion through bonding.
Before the 2022 session, legislative leaders set aside $200 million to rescind the FrontRunner bonds issued, saving the state millions in bond payments. Lawmakers are hoping to free up enough cash to pay for all of the transit projects in this year’s bill without borrowing, but bonds are again a possibility.
If public transit projects are included in the final list, the state could have more control over how that money is spent. A current proposal — HB322, which still needs Senate debate — transfers oversight of public transit projects funded with state money from the Utah Transit Authority to the Utah Department of Transportation.