NORTH SALT LAKE The road is muddy and marked by deep ruts. A gate bars the public from access.
To most Davis County residents, this is a picture that defines the battle over the past eight years to build the Legacy Parkway, which was abandoned soon after construction began in 2001. It's a history that has been marked by lawsuits, failed negotiations and a costly court-ordered halt to construction.
But Wednesday, state officials and a group of citizen activists unveiled a plan to smooth out the bumps, remove the gate and pave a way for work on Legacy to begin again. Just after 4 p.m., Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Brad Yates from the Sierra Club signed an "agreement in principle," which sets a framework for settling the 2001 lawsuit that halted construction on the road.
If all goes to plan, construction on Legacy will begin next spring. The road could be open for travel by 2008.
"This is an exciting day for our state, with tremendous positive impact for the state's economy, the environment and its transportation system," said Huntsman.
Over the next 30 to 60 days, lawmakers and staff will create a formal settlement agreement, which will be voted on by the Legislature during a special session, according to Huntsman. If the formal settlement abides by principles in the agreement signed Wednesday, lawmakers say they have enough votes to approve the settlement. The state would still need to go to court to lift the injunction that halted work.
During caucus meeting Wednesday, GOP senators approved the deal with little dissent, Senate Majority Leader Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, said. The majority party members discussed the terms for nearly an hour behind closed doors.
"It was not close. There was some dissention but not much," Knudson said. "Really, there wasn't any specific heartburn. I think that bottom line, we see this as a win-win and we want to move on."
House Majority Leader Jeff Alexander, R-Provo, said the GOP House caucus was about two-thirds in favor of the settlement, one-third against it. Before Huntsman signed the agreement, he asked lawmakers to give their approval.
Key aspects of Wednesday's agreement include the following: a prohibition of large commercial trucks on Legacy; a speed limit set at 55 mph; no billboards; noise-reducing pavement; acquisition of 125 additional acres for the Legacy Nature Preserve; and a pledge of $2.5 million for an environmental study of light rail and bus rapid transit.
Plans to reconstruct and expand I-15 must also be deferred until 2020. Also, no further lawsuits can be filed against the Legacy Parkway by those who signed the agreement.
Suits can be filed on future extensions of Legacy an area of concern for some lawmakers. Other concerns include the prohibition on commercial trucks, and overall consternation that a deal was even considered with those who have fought against Legacy for so long.
"I understand the popularity of this road for the people in northern Utah," said Dave Creer, president of the Utah Truckers Association. "But to ban trucks from a major new highway, from a major new freight corridor, will again be a national victory for environmental groups. All new highways built throughout the United States and throughout our state will now be challenged to prohibit commerce, to prohibit trucking from those corridors."
Creer continued: "To give up commerce to allow this freeway to be built is a travesty, and it'll be a mark on the state of Utah and all future road projects to come."
In a past interview, House Speaker Greg Curtis said he was concerned that negotiating would start the state down "a significant policy road in regards to driving policy by litigation."
Both state officials and Davis County leaders said negotiating a deal to end lawsuits against Legacy was in the "best interest" of taxpayers. Since 2001, the cost to build Legacy has risen by $217 million. An additional court challenge would have increased the cost by another $100 million.
The current cost to build the road is estimated at $689 million.
"We could have said we're going to court again and then spent another two to three years and another $100 million and maybe won," said Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. "But it's somewhat of a crap shoot whether you win or lose. I'm sure the state thought they would win before, and now, $220 million later, we haven't built any road. I don't know if that's in the best interest of the taxpayer."
Construction on Legacy was halted in 2001 after a successful lawsuit by the Sierra Club, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and Utahns for Better Transportation. The Utah Department of Transportation and two federal administrations were asked by the courts to review five environmental impacts of the road more extensively.
The Legacy Parkway is planned to run adjacent to the Great Salt Lake, stretching 14 miles from North Salt Lake to Farmington. About 160 acres of wetlands will be destroyed by construction of the road.
Despite the impact, Davis County leaders say residents have waited long enough for the road to be built. The county has no major alternative to I-15.
"It's wonderful to have a choice for another alternative to mobility in the county," said Davis County Commissioner Dannie McConkie.
Added Layton Mayor Jerry Stevenson: "I'm not sure it's a perfect agreement, but it'll get traffic moving at least."
Those who have fought against construction of Legacy say negotiations will be a "win win" for Davis County, Weber County and all others who travel north of Salt Lake City. The environment will be better protected, and residents will have more alternatives for travel, said Marc Heileson, regional representative for the Sierra Club.
Said Roger Borgenicht, with Utahns for Better Transportation: "You don't win everything in a compromise, but I think we advanced the notion of civilized roads and more transportation options."
As part of the agreement signed Wednesday, the state has said they will work to set up a process for avoiding future lawsuits like the lengthy challenge against Legacy. Carlos Braceras, deputy director for the Utah Department of Transportation, said a precedent will be set that allows for negotiations to occur early in the process of building a road.
"We're solving problems here," he said. "We believe we have found a way to find answers without going to court."To read details of the settlement, or more more details about the Legacy Parkway, log on to: www.udot.utah.gov.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Bob Bernick Jr.