State-funded construction projects are among the top beneficiaries of a $1.5-billion budget surplus carved up by Utah lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session that ended March 6.
The Utah Dept. of Transportation gained $1.1 billion in one-time funds and new bonding capacity while the Utah Dept. of Facilities Construction and Management received $658.8 million in one-time funding for new buildings, renovations and the development of two new state parks.
In addition, a new fund was created for UDOT to begin collecting money for yet-to-be-determined solutions to the growing traffic problems in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.
General contractors also secured a victory with passage of a law restricting the ability of subcontracted workers to sue for work-related injuries that have already been compensated.
Trails, Rails and Roads
UDOT received $869.6 million in one-time funding for a variety of projects around the state as well as authorization for $264 million in new bonding to be used chiefly for improvements to the Front Runner commuter rail line.
“I feel good about where we ended up,” says Carlos Braceras, executive director of UDOT. “We got a lot more one-time money and less bonding, which is a good thing in my mind because it is less we’re going to have to pay back in the future.”
He says the funding will maintain a steady flow of projects, avoiding what might have been a steep decline as currently programmed projects are completed.
“We’ve programmed out the $1 billion in bonding that was approved back in 2017,” Braceras says. “So we would have been looking at a few years where we would have had fewer project lettings as we looked at paying those off. This will get us through that trough and get us to some more consistent growth.”
The modified House Bill 433, expected to be signed by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R), designates that $705 million of the $869.6 million in one-time funding will go to into the Transportation Infrastructure Fund (TIF) for acquiring right-of-way and doing construction or renovation of just over a dozen projects across the state.
The TIF includes $35 million for “paved pedestrian or paved nonmotorized transportation projects,” with UDOT acting as the pass-through agency for cities and counties. The process also reduces the amount of matching funds municipalities would be required to provide, from 40% of total cost, to 20%.
“There are lots of cities interested in building more trails for residents. There are trail systems all over the state,” Braceras says. “In some places there could be the opportunity to connect them to other trails to create a larger system. I think we’ll be especially interested in places where we can make those linkages happen.”
Of the $264 million in bonding, $200 million is aimed at improvements to the Front Runner commuter rail system operated by the Utah Transit Authority. Front Runner currently operates on 88 miles of single track from Pleasant View in northern Weber County south to Provo in Utah County. The bond money will be used to double-track sections of the line to increase capacity and frequency of service.
“We will just act as a pass-through agency for that funding,” says Braceras. “We work with the UTA. They are the experts on what they need and what needs to happen with Front Runner.”
Approximately $30 million will be directed to other improvements in commuter rail systems as well as implementation of a bus rapid transit system for the mid-Salt Lake Valley.
An environmental study in the Point of the Mountain area will receive $5 million in funding. The area is home to the current Utah State Prison, but a new prison is under construction and slated for completion this spring. Last year the state hired the Chicago-based architectural, engineering and planning firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to begin a master plan for redeveloping the old prison site.
State lawmakers created a new fund within the TIF to help the eventual funding of a solution for heavy traffic in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. The Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Investment Fund will collect a fraction of state sales tax, up a maximum of $20 million a year.
“We are in the middle of a study in the Cottonwood Canyons right now, and we won’t have recommendations from it for about a year,” Braceras says.
Potential solutions range from increased bus service in the area to widening the road to a cog-rail line and gondola system, he says.
Buildings Back on Track
Last November as the pandemic swelled, Utah state lawmakers met in special session to make budget cuts in anticipation of a revenue shortfall. Seven new buildings, mostly on the state’s higher education campuses, were put on hold, but as the shortfalls have not materialized, lawmakers have reinstated the projects overseen by the DFCM.
“We did get those projects back, with some stipulations,” says DFCM Assistant Director Matt Boyer. “They (state lawmakers) want the schools to go through and look at space utilization. They want to know these new buildings are going to be occupied, and the schools are using the space they have efficiently and then reapply before they can tap this funding,” Boyer says.
Of the $685.6 million, approximately $500 million is designated for capital development projects (remodels, site or utility projects with a cost of $3.5 million or more, or a new facility over $500,000), while $158 million will go to capital improvements, or projects with budgets below those qualifying as development projects.
Lawmakers also approved $35.6 million in one-time money to establish two new state parks. Utah Raptor State Park will be located near Moab, where the Utah raptor fossils were first discovered. Lost Creek State Park will be created adjacent to an existing BLM reservoir in Morgan County.
“We will be overseeing development of the infrastructure and building the facilities for those new parks,” Boyer says.
Boyer says the DFCM will also direct $82 million in one-time money for repairs and improvements at existing state parks.
“There has been a backlog of projects at the state parks as more and more people visit and enjoy the outdoors in our state. This money will go to a wide range of projects,” he adds.
Joey Gilbert, vice president of the Utah Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, says the association appreciates the use of the one-time funding from the surplus to ensure future state projects. The association was also pleased with the passage of new legislation that protects general contractors from excessive law suits by employees of subcontractors, Gilbert says.
Under the changes from House Bill 355, if the employee of a subcontractor is compensated for an injury through the subcontractor’s insurance, and there are verified safety programs in place, the employee can’t seek further compensation from the general contractor.
“It is a good thing for our members and really closes a loophole as far as we are concerned,” Gilbert says.