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Front Page » February 16, 2006 » Local News » Bill Amended to Divert Earmarked Funding for U.S. 6
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Bill Amended to Divert Earmarked Funding for U.S. 6

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Sun Advocate reporter

Construction crews work Tuesday afternoon at Blue Cut. Steep cuts along U.S. Highway 6 create a need for continual maintenance along the highway. However, other construction needs along the highway are one-time fixes that experts say will increase safety and decrease congestion on the corridor. Last year, the highway was added to the federal list of high-volume corridors.

A movement in the Utah Legislature to secure funding for U.S. Highway 6 improvements may have lost momentum Tuesday in the House transportation committee.

The proposed bill originally called for $1.3 billion in bonding for improving the highway from Spanish Fork to Green River.

"As long as I've been here, people have said, 'We're going to rebuild that thing one day, but we just don't have the money,'" pointed out Rep. James Ferrin of Orem, who introduced House Bill 369.

Ferrin indicated to the committee members that, in 2001, he was told the cost for the U.S. 6 reconstruction would be $500 million.

However, Utah didn't have the revenue to fund the project in the state budget and lawmakers were not willing to bond for the money.

Since 2001, the Utah Department of Transportation has released an environmental impact statement, continued Ferrin.

Last year, the Federal Highway Administration made a record of decision regarding the best option for improving safety on the highway after considering various options.

One option was the no-action alternative, where improvements are made piecemeal.

Federal highway officials also considered more extreme options such as lowering the speed limit on U.S. 6 and banning semi-trucks.

The federal agency's record of decision was to expand the highway to four lanes for 127 miles and, for environmental reasons, to expand 13 miles of U.S. 6 to three lanes.

However, the cost for the improvements has escalated from the $500 million estimated in 2001 to $1.2 billion in 2006.

Six factors have contributed to that increase, explained Ferrin. The costs of oil, asphalt, concrete and steel have all gone up. Barrow, or fill dirt, is more expensive and excavation costs have increased.

In one year, costs associated with highway reconstruction have all jumped by 70 percent.

While the costs are not expected to continue to rise at the same rate, Ferrin said they are likely to continue to increase.

Even at a modest increase of 10 percent, the price tag for reconstruction rises to $1.3 billion in one year, $1.45 billion in two years and $3.1 billion in 10 years.

A bond for $1.3 billion would require $113 million a year in debt service by the state. If the state bonded for $3.1 billion in 10 years, the debt service would increase to $273 million per year.

"Every year, we wait costs an additional $200 million," said Ferrin.

While the representative considers himself a fiscal conservative, the bill sponsor explained that there is sound financial reasoning in bonding now. If the state borrows money at 4 percent or 5 percent interest and invests the money in a project that is increasing at a rate between 10 percent and 30 percent, it is a good investment.

"I believe that the fiscally responsible thing for us to do right now is to bond - borrow as much money as we possibly can and buy as much concrete, as much steel, as much asphalt, as much oil, as much barrow (dirt), as much excavation as we can and lock in those costs, hopefully at today's levels," said Ferrin.

As a representative of Orem, Ferrin noted that the state's first highway priority is Interstate 15, which runs though his district. He explained that he understands that I-15 needs works as well, at an estimated price tag of $3.2 million.

However, the state's bonding limit is currently capped at $1.3 billion. Rather than build part of U.S. 6 and part of I-15, Ferrin said his preference was to focus on U.S. 6.

"There are other issues at hand beyond merely the cost," commented the representative.

Ferrin reported that the average death toll for U.S. 6 is 11 lives per year. And while UDOT has made steady improvements and the Utah Highway Patrol has added manpower, U.S. 6 is the deadliest road per capita in the state.

He reminded committee members that in June of 2005, Travis Terry a 22-year-old resident of Moroni crossed the center line, hit a semi truck and was killed. On Oct. 28, Nuno Pereira, a 26-year-old West Valley City man was killed under similar circumstances. Later that month, a 22-year-old Wellington resident, Lance Sandstrom, crossed the center line, hit a semi and was declared dead at the scene.

"You see a pattern here? They cross the center line and they hit semis," said Ferrin.

On Nov. 11, Tommy Newell, age 45 from Salt Lake City, and Murray Odell, age 35 from Payson, were both driving semis near Woodside when the trucks collided and caught fire. Both drivers were killed.

On Dec. 10, a station wagon carrying three individuals from Grand Junction, Colo., crashed into an SUV with two Huntington residents.

"I don't know how fast they were going," said Ferrin. "I don't know how fast Alan Weaver was driving. I don't know if he was sleepy. It doesn't matter. He was in his lane. The other vehicle came across the lane and hit him head-on, and all five were killed.

"And the very next day, an entire family was taken. Kimball, Juanita and Mason Childs - Mason is the 8-year-old son of Kimball and Juanita, both age 46 - were killed on U.S. Highway 6 on Dec 11 - the very next day - when their car crossed the center line, hitting a truck head-on and burst into flames. They are three of 13 fatalities on the highway in 2005, almost all of which have been crossovers."

He explained that other factors than cost or traffic efficiency come into play when arguing for Highway 6. The value of human lives is the outweighing force.

"This legislature has within its power to rebuild that highway. We can do it now," said Ferrin, urging committee members to recognize the need for improvements sooner than later.

"Rep. Ferrin has done a brave thing in bringing this forward.," said an emotional Rep. Brad King of Price. "This is always going to be a dangerous road. It's in a canyon. It will always be in a canyon. There will always be animals. There will always be idiots. You can't legislate against that unfortunately. But what you can do is take away the head-on collisions. It's within our power to do that."

King said he was grateful for the mile or two that UDOT has improved along the highway every year. But he also noted that the $1.3 billion would benefit the population of the state well after the 15 years it takes to pay back the debt.

"There is a human toll that is far beyond any cost that we could ever talk about," he said.

Members of the committee wondered if approving the original bill would set a precedent for future bills.

"The question is, naturally, why would the legislature be making this decision?" asked Ferrin. "The answer for me is that we are the highest policy-making board in this state. We live out in the neighborhoods. We represent about 30,000 people each. And if not us, who? If not now, when?"

He also pointed out that the funding of Highway 6 is a unique circumstance.

"If anybody comes in here and can make a case that we have the deadliest road per capita on a major corridor like this, that's been waiting for years and years and years, and the costs are escalating faster than we can keep up with them, then I think that's an appropriate prioritization to make," Ferrin told committee members. "This one didn't come out of the blue. It's been here for a long time. I think it's now time for us to take action."

However, before the bill could be passed out of committee and onto the house floor, Rep. John Dougall of American Fork added an amendment.

The amended bill removes the direct funding of U.S. 6 and gives the state transportation commission the power to prioritize funding needs and give the funds to various projects around the state.

Dougall said that earmarking the funds for Highway 6 would be tying the hands of the state's transportation commission. He said the legislature had done that before and the highway commission was only beginning to become empowered again.

"The same question comes up in public education.We have a state school board. Should we stay out of the way and simply let them make all the decisions or does the legislature have a responsibility there? And the answer is, we both have a responsibility. The transportation commission has a responsibility as does the legislature," pointed out Ferrin. "It's time for this legislature to stand up and do it."

Despite arguments against it, the amendment passed with King, Rep. Karen Morgan of Salt Lake City, Rep. Peggy Wallace of West Jordan, Rep. Larry Willey of West Valley City and Rep. Joseph Murray of Ogden voting against it.

The amended bill passed out of committee with a favorable motion and has been sent to the floor of the House for a second reading.

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