Guest OpEd, submitted by:
President Eisenhower famously warned us about the military-industrial complex as he exited the presidency. Does Utah have a transportation-industrial complex?
As the legislative session was approaching its conclusion, both the House and Senate approved HB377. The Utah House passed the initial version of HB377 by a bipartisan 72-1 vote. The bill overrides the Utah Transportation Commission to earmark funds for specific road building projects. The bill contains a long list of multimillion dollar goodies for a multitude of Utah municipalities. Yes, these are the same kind of earmarks that were properly vilified when they were used extensively by the U.S. Congress. Democrats and Republicans in Washington have now effectively banned the earmark. What about Democrats and Republicans in Utah? The Utah Transportation Commission (UTC) is presumed to have the expertise and the detailed knowledge to know how Utah’s transportation dollars are best spent. Because the Legislature felt compelled to mandate this long list of specific projects, rather than deferring to the UTC’s expertise, one can only presume that most or all of these earmarked projects were not expected to have met the UTC’s criteria.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart was the only House vote against HB377. Her opposition was on the basis of legislators substituting their decisions for those of the UTC. Earlier in this year’s legislative session, Speaker Lockhart questioned the wisdom of the legislators passing laws during this session that would result in 200 pages being added to the Utah Code (as typically happens each session). It is welcome to see the Speaker standing up to business as usual.
There are two line items in the long list of transportation goodies that HB377 bestowed upon various cities and entities that seem to particularly merit attention.
HB377 mandates that the State of Utah give Draper City $5,000,000 for highway improvements to Suncrest Road. My review of the official UDOT map indicates that SunCrest Drive (it’s called Suncrest Road in HB377 but it’s SunCrest Drive on the maps) is not a state highway. Last fall, Draper reportedly spent $5.6 million to buy real property associated with the SunCrest subdivision from Zions Bank. The SunCrest subdivision sits atop the mountain that ends at the Point of the Mountain. SunCrest Drive connects the SunCrest subdivision to the valley below. I’ve seen the houses at SunCrest. These are not modest bungalows. In 2008 there were allegations of serious defects with regard to SunCrest Drive in part as a result of the road being built on an allegedly unsuitable foundation. Draper is an affluent city and SunCrest is an affluent subdivision. Why is money from the State of Utah earmarked to improve this road? If it’s true that the road was built defectively from the beginning, why should Draper be bailed-out? Given the totality of the State’s transportation needs, why was this particular project picked to be funded while other projects were not funded? Was a cost/benefit analysis ever done? Why was this bill publicly distributed at the very late date of February 27th?
HB377 mandates that $4,500,000 go to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development “for transportation infrastructure acquisitions and improvements that have a significant economic development impact within the state.” That’s it? Nothing more specific about how the money is to be used? With a criteria this vague, just about anything anywhere that’s a transportation infrastructure could be funded. Does anyone but the Governor have to concur about what constitutes “significant economic development”?
HB377 falls far short of good government. It lacks due diligence and transparency. The Governor should veto this bill.
-Eric Rumple analyzes public policy for the Alliance for a Better Utah.
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