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Utah lawmakers propose $2.2 billion in road, rail and state park improvements

Posted at 2:45 PM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 19:59:38-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A $2.2 billion infrastructure spending bill has been unveiled in the Utah State Legislature, spending taxpayer money to improve roads, speed up trains and improve state parks.

"It’d be a record amount of infrastructure spending in the state," said House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who is sponsoring House Bill 433.

The bill, made public late Wednesday, would allocate money to double-track Frontrunner trains from Provo to Ogden, as well as funding a bus rapid transit system in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley. It's because I-15 is reaching capacity as the state continues to see population growth, Rep. Schultz said.

"Our roadways can’t handle the additional capacity. UDOT will tell you, we can’t make I-15 wide enough," he said.

It would also plan for growth at Point of the Mountain when the Utah State Prison moves, and even fund a bridge project in Brigham City.

The legislature is proposing a funding increase for Utah Transit Authority to fund double-tracking Frontrunner, with the goal of trains running every 15 minutes.

"It’ll shave off 15 to 20 minutes in the commute from Provo to Salt Lake and Ogden to Salt Lake," Rep. Schultz said.

There's money to expand rail service south of Provo. Approximately $621 million would be spent on road projects across the state, and additional money would be given for improvements at Utah's state parks (including money for a second entrance to Arches National Park in Moab through the newly-created Utahraptor State Park).

But $2.2 billion is roughly 10% of the state budget, and the House and Senate are not in agreement over whether it's wise to spend that much. Approximately $1.4 billion of that would be in bonding, which is borrowing money. The rest is one-time money the state has on hand.

"I think it’s a very fiscally conservative approach to it, the way we’re spreading it out four or five years," Rep. Schultz said. "We’ll have less debt next year."

But Senate GOP leaders were concerned about so much borrowing in a time when there is still economic uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I still am queasy. My gut is still queasy about our situation," said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. "I still think there’s a cliff out there and I worry about that."

Governor Spencer Cox's office has been in negotiations over the bill. The governor told FOX 13 on Thursday that he is supportive of the infrastructure bill, but had some reservations about borrowing so much.

"These projects need to go," he said of infrastructure. "I don’t know that $1.4 billion is the right number on that."

With seven days left in the 2021 legislative session, the bill is being fast-tracked. It has a hearing on Friday morning and is expected to advance even with negotiations ongoing about how much to spend.

Another bill that stalled would have urged Utah to get federal money to expand statewide passenger rail. Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla's resolution died in a committee on Thursday morning with a close 3-2 vote. She said she would keep trying to advance it.

"I am going to bring it back. I think it’s important," she said. "I live along the Wasatch Front where the best public transportation is. This rail is about connecting everyone, and i think rural Utah will benefit from this."