Mike Terry , Deseret News
The need for an alternate freeway through northern Davis County into Weber County is compelling, especially to anyone who has to drive that stretch during the daily rush. If growth projections hold true, an additional 100,000 people will move into that area by 2040, making the need even more apparent.
But freeways carry tolls beyond the price of construction, which in this case is estimated at just below $600 million. That is especially true when they are built in an area as environmentally sensitive as the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake.
After considering 46 options for locating the West Davis Highway, the Utah Department of Transportation has chosen its preferred route and now has opened a 90-day period for public review and comment. It hopes to make a final decision on the route and construction details by the spring of 2014. After that, it needs to find money for construction, which could come from federal or state governments, or a combination of the two.
But while the public mulls the preferred route across sparsely populated areas of Davis County, all involved need to consider some questions.
The freeway would be an extension of the Legacy Parkway in southern Davis County. Utahns had to endure years of expensive legal wrangling in the construction of that portion, as environmentalists won a key court battle challenging the state's original plans.
That led to a compromise that resulted in rules prohibiting commercial truck traffic and billboards, requiring construction of a nature preserve to mitigate environmental impacts, the imposition of speed restrictions at a maximum of 55 mph and the use of special noise-reducing asphalt.
While we understand the state has yet to finalize its plans, why haven't these compromise conditions been transferred to the new route? Given the costs imposed by delays in Legacy's construction, will the state do all it can to satisfy all sides before embarking on the new extension?
Chief among the valid concerns about the West Davis Highway is how noise levels might affect the bird species that use both low-lying wetlands and uplands as resting points along their migratory paths. What will the state do to ensure these migratory behaviors, so important to the ecosystem, are not disturbed?
Presumably the highway will push development to the west. What are cities along the route doing to ensure that zoning laws include environmental concerns?
When it comes to funding, why do state officials shy away from variable tolls? A toll way would provide money for construction and upkeep from the people who use the road, and a variable toll, in which the amount charged changes according to traffic conditions, would encourage people to travel more during off-peak hours, thus further reducing congestion.
State officials say the preferred route would result in 26 houses and five businesses being relocated, with the possibility of up to five more houses being added to that list. In addition, 110 acres of prime farmland and 52 acres of wetlands would be affected.
Unfortunately, there are no easy ways in which to erect a freeway. We wish local communities, which must have known the highway one day was coming, would have been more careful in allowing construction to spread west in recent years.
The state argues its figures show the highway would reduce traffic congestion in the area by 60 percent. Projections, however, depend on future residents acting in fairly similar ways to how people act today. A group of concerned residents and interest groups has developed an alternative they say relies on local communities to develop wider boulevards and innovative intersections to make neighborhoods more self-sustained, as well as to increase mass transit options.
That option may be worthwhile with or without the new highway. However, it isn't likely to solve the problems that frequently arise when I-15 is overcrowded or closed due to an accident.
Answers don't come easy. But a thorough and cooperative planning process among all involved is the best bet for an effective solution to this traffic puzzle.