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In our opinion: Highway trouble

Published: Friday, Sept. 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Federal agencies have now raised objections to plans for a new highway through western Davis County, giving hope to those who don't like the route currently proposed by the Utah Department of Transportation.

Mike Terry , Deseret News

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Federal agencies have now raised objections to plans for a new highway through western Davis County, giving hope to those who don't like the route currently proposed by the Utah Department of Transportation. The action by Washington means more study and discussion will take place — which can be beneficial — although more analysis will not make the pressing transportation needs in that fast-growing suburban corridor magically go away.

The issue never has been whether more alternatives are needed, but exactly what they should be. UDOT likes one highway configuration, while some local governments and property owners prefer another route. And environmental interests are pushing the notion that vehicle congestion can be addressed in ways other than building 25 miles of new highway.

All parties have persuasive arguments, although some are more so than others; and no matter what plan is eventually adopted, somebody won't be happy. That is the nature of transportation planning in an already-developed area — pleasing all parties is simply not in the realm of the possible.

In that regard, the intervention of federal agencies should be seen as a positive development, opening the door for more research, analysis and public discussion. In the end, it will mean that regardless of which alternative is decided upon, those who prefer something else will at least know their positions were heard and considered.

That is particularly true for conservationist groups whose arguments that a new highway isn't absolutely necessary have so far gained little traction. Now, significant environmental obstacles appear in the way of the first shovel, regardless of where it is planted.

The U.S. Department of Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers have objected to the roadway as envisioned by UDOT because they say it would adversely impact vital wetlands adjacent to the Great Salt Lake. In fact, any alignment of a new highway west of I-15 would impact wetlands, so there now becomes a more pressing reason to consider what might work other than a new ribbon of concrete and asphalt, or whether there are other ways to mitigate the impacts.

A citizen's group is pushing what it calls a "shared solution" for the area's transportation needs, which includes a small expansion of I-15, reconfiguration of some local roads and a significant expansion of mass transit. Its plans are a bit on the idealistic side. Ridership potential on the relatively sparsely populated west side of Davis County makes mass transit an iffy proposition, and an expansion of I-15 would not solve the problem of needing a viable alternative when I-15 is bogged down by an accident. However, the flags now raised by federal agencies should give that group greater entrée to the process of additional analysis that follows, and that ultimately will lead to a better solution.

Transportation engineers who work for agencies such as UDOT are oriented more toward the practice of designing and building roads than searching for innovative ways to avoid building roads. Even so, those same engineers have already outlined a scenario for a future nightmare of perpetual vehicle congestion through the length of Davis County if things remain as they are.

The best solution would be one similar to the compromise that led to construction of the Legacy Parkway, which included significant wetlands protections and other unique and environmentally sensitive design elements. That came about after lengthy legal challenges.

While conservationists are convinced their "shared solution" will do the trick, that it is a supposition that needs to be put to a rigorous test. The literal and figurative roadblock tossed at the project by federal agencies should instigate such an examination.

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