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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Morning commuters travel south on Columbus Street into downtown Salt Lake City.

A group of University of Utah engineering students unveiled their class project Tuesday — a two-block tunnel intended to route traffic beneath the neighborhood bordering the state Capitol.

Their final semester project, presented to an audience gathered at the Capitol complex that included some state and city officials as well as a few area residents, was only an academic exercise.

But that didn't stop the students from enthusiastically advocating spending what they said would be $20 million to move the portion of Columbus Street between 300 North and 500 North underground.

Columbus Street, which links Victory Road to Main Street, is heavily traveled by Davis County commuters. The heavy use causes traffic congestion around the Capitol and makes the street unsafe for pedestrians.

"I hope we've thrown out ideas that made you think," said Phillip Miller, the U. senior who summarized the project. He asked the decision-makers in the audience to "take this and run with it."

The city and state officials in attendance, however, weren't eager to embrace the tunnel.

Mack Christensen, a traffic operation engineer for the Utah Department of Transportation, pointed out that the project wouldn't accommodate any additional traffic. Just like the road it would be replacing, the tunnel would have only two traffic lanes.

"We wouldn't build a $20 million project without considering future growth options," Christensen said, suggesting that while the students did a "very professional job" they should have come up with a proposal that could handle at least twice the traffic flow.

Student Andrew Chamberlain defended the size of the tunnel, saying that neighborhood residents didn't want to see a freeway outside their front door. Besides, Chamberlain said, the emergency lane could be used someday as an additional traffic lane.

UDOT is in the process of installing a traffic light on the state-owned street at 300 North, Christensen said, and another light is under consideration for 500 North. He said the agency probably wouldn't support a tunnel.

Salt Lake City Councilman Eric Jergensen, an engineer himself, also raised questions about the project — including how it would be funded. He estimated the cost would be considerably higher than the $20 million figure given by the students.

"Even if this was a slam dunk, the best solution in the universe, it might very well be that we can't afford it," Jergensen said. The city is pushing for traffic signals on the street to slow traffic through the neighborhood rather than speed it up as the tunnel likely would do.

The problem created by the Victory Road traffic isn't new — and solving it has been a topic of debate for at least a decade. One solution being promoted is getting drivers to use other routes from Davis County into Salt Lake City, such as the 600 North exit off I-15.

Currently, the Capitol is under renovation. The four-year, $200 million project isn't expected to be finished until 2008. It's not likely a project the scale of the tunnel would be undertaken before then.

David Hart, executive director of the Capitol Preservation Board, said that while the state may never install a tunnel, some of the students' ideas for improving the green space in the area have merit.

That appealed to Columbus Street resident Mike Hussey, who said his five children aren't able to play safely near their home. Although he said he liked the idea of the tunnel, Hussey suggested it was too expensive to be considered.

"I don't know where we would get the money," he said. "I think that's the scariest thing for us."