Legislative leaders nearing agreement on transportation funding

At issue is whether Utah should borrow more than $1 billion to fund infrastructure projects.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Transit Authority riders board the FrontRunner train in Ogden on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. Last week, House leaders introduced a massive $2.26 billion proposal to fund roads, transit and other infrastructure projects.

As Utah lawmakers prepare to finish the budget for next year, the biggest sticking point is whether to borrow $1.4 billion to pay for several transportation and transit projects over the next few years. But, House and Senate leaders are close to breaking their impasse on the issue.

Last week, House leaders introduced a massive $2.26 billion proposal to fund roads, transit and other infrastructure projects. That hefty total includes more than $1 billion in new borrowing over several years.

Republicans in the House argue the state should take advantage of low interest rates right now and borrow for projects such as double-tracking the FrontRunner rail system to increase capacity and reduce congestion along the I-15 corridor.

But, Senate Republicans aren’t convinced. They point to the nearly $1.5 billion in additional projected one-time revenue in next year’s budget, saying that money should go toward these projects instead of adding to the debt load.

“I think it makes sense to use our one-time money and spend it on infrastructure,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

The two sides have been negotiating over the bonding issue since Friday. Legislative sources indicate the two sides are nearing a deal that would be able to fund many of those projects while reducing the bond amount significantly. That likely means either spending more of this year’s one-time money on transit or delaying construction on buildings and other projects. Legislators could also tap some of the state’s “working rainy day funds” that use ongoing money to pay for one-time projects.

In addition to the FrontRunner expansion, HB433 adds more than $600 million in funding to pay for transit projects that have already been prioritized by the Utah Department of Transportation. There’s also $36 million to pay for two new state parks and $67.5 million for maintenance in existing state parks.

According to legislative rules, the Legislature must take final action on any bonding bill by Wednesday.

That transportation spending is the last major piece of the state’s nearly $22 billion budget for next year that has yet to be decided. On Monday, the House and Senate advanced a pair of appropriations bills for the next budget year, which begins on July 1.

The $100 million tax cut package pushed by legislative leaders is nearly done as well. SB153, which would use approximately $53 million to expand the state’s dependent exemption, was overwhelmingly approved by the House on Monday. HB86, which would take $44 million to expand a tax credit for some retirees on Social Security, won unanimous approval in the Senate. Both bills are headed to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk for his signature. A third bill, SB11, which would eliminate income taxes on military retiree pay, needs one more vote for final approval.