DALLAS - The Utah Department of Transportation last week celebrated the $1.8 billion awarded by the state Legislature to expand Interstate 15 in the Salt Lake City area, even though the original reconstruction plan called for nearly $5 billion.

"I'm extremely pleased with what we got," said UDOT executive director John Njord. "We're going to be addressing the most critically needed and most congested portion of the project. The rest of it will come."

Under CR 6, sponsored by Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, UDOT is authorized to issue general obligation bonds, even though the actual funding for the 20-mile project will not come until next year's legislative session, officials said.

In the meantime, UDOT is expecting approval of its environmental impact statement this summer, which will allow the agency to begin the process of soliciting design-build proposals. Another section of I-15 has been built through the design-build process, Njord said.

In the process of debating the entire $4.9 billion project that had been under study, lawmakers decided to pare the project down to avoid endangering the state's triple-A rating.

"That's extremely important, not just for the state, but for the school districts whose bonds are guaranteed by the state," Njord said.

The Senate measure allows UDOT to go before the Legislature in next year's session and pursue more funding for a larger expansion.

Njord said that UDOT is not likely to issue bonds for the I-15 expansion until 2010.

In addition to the funding for I-15, lawmakers increased the Critical Highway Needs Fund by $200 million to $1.2 billion. The increase came through shifting sales tax revenue toward the highway fund.

The fund was created in the 2007 session by HB 314 to fund projects identified by UDOT, the Transportation Commission and the Executive Appropriations Committee.

Projects are chosen on the basis of growth in the area, access need due to commercial and energy development, congestion, and whether they provide an alternate route for I-15 reconstruction.

Lawmakers approved giving certain counties the authority to tax one-tenth of a cent for use on state road projects, and Valentine said Utah County is likely to impose the tax for the portion of the I-15 project that runs through its boundaries.

The transportation measure was approved in the last day of the legislative session on Wednesday. The session ranked as one of the quieter ones, as most issues had been resolved before the last day.

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