howardnlby Howard Stephenson

In its recently completed General Session, the Utah Legislature ran out of time before taking action on a number of important bills. One of these is DORA, the Drug Offender Reform Act which I wrote about in an earlier column. Another deals with solving Utah ’s current hemorrhage in highway funding. Both of these issues have been placed on the call for the special session along with 13 other issues. The special session is currently planned for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

Critical highway projects still woefully underfunded

If we don’t pay now for transportation, we’ll pay even more for it later. The legislature has an opportunity in tomorrow’s special session legislature to help solve our highway funding problem by passing HB 18 (Lockhart), which failed for lack of time on the final night of the general session. Unfortunately, it appears the full measure will not be considered until the next general session.

If we don’t address our transportation problem now, it will get much worse over the coming years and require dramatic tax increases to address the issues. Our population is growing quickly, and roads already considered inadequate will become intolerable. In fact, studies show that the costs to our community will, in the long run, be much, much greater than the costs of fixing the problem now.

To make matters worse, during the last recession, the state’s budget was balanced by raiding the transportation fund. Money was systematically transferred from transportation to maintain funding levels for other critical programs like education. As a result, our transportation infrastructure has failed to keep up with pressing needs, creating more and more congestion across the state and leaving many vital road projects unfinished.

This isn’t just a matter of inconvenience. If we don’t put funds toward this vital part of our community, businesses already here will lose big time in hard costs through increased gasoline costs, wasted employee time, and critical shipping delays. A poor transportation infrastructure will also deter many businesses from relocating here. Unaddressed transportation needs even risks human life, creating delays for emergency vehicles and compounding hazardous road conditions.

Transportation planners project that it will cost at least $7 billion over the next ten years to adequately respond to the state’s transportation needs. The legislative Transportation Planning Task Force pared that figure to $4.5 billion, which covers only the most critical needs. Despite recent efforts by the Legislature and the Governor, $3 billion of the $4.5 billion is still unfunded . Without additional general fund monies, this would require a 100% increase in the current 24 cent state gas tax

If we don’t use existing general fund revenues for highways, where will that funding come from?

Putting transportation funding on the right track benefits everyone.

The Utah Taxpayers Association has commended the Legislature for appropriating $150 million of ongoing general fund revenues for transportation projects this year. The Utah Taxpayers Association recommends that, additionally, at least $300 million annually be appropriated for highways from the state’s general fund. Road construction and repair are a very legitimate use of taxpayer money–one that will pay off long-term.

Moreover, prudent financial policy demands the state use ongoing general fund revenues for capital projects in order to avoid growing government during the fat years and raising taxes during the lean years. Additionally, this policy will reduce the need for the state to borrow and pay interest, thereby avoiding unnecessarily increasing the state’s debt service costs. It’s simply common sense — if we continue to ignore this problem, it will continue to become more and more unmanageable, until Utah ’s economy is stricken in a way we will all feel.