Proposals to rebuild the ruined 7-mile causeway across a portion of Great Salt Lake to Antelope Island State Park have not met with success in the Utah Legislature - there are too many other critical needs. But the idea might be worth considering at some point in partnership with Davis County.
The idea may be brought up again in the Legislature's special session this month. However, the chances for any funding appear slim at the moment.The causeway was washed out in 1983 when the lake rose to a historic high of 4,211 feet above sea level, destroying not only the road but doing $200 million worth of damage to lake shore industries, railroad lines and portions of I-80.
With the state currently in a drought, the lake level is at 4,202 feet and may fall another two feet this summer if the dry weather continues. But the lake historically has had years-long cycles where it has fallen and risen again.
Why spend money on another causeway only to see it washed away if the lake should rise to record heights again?
Proponents have two answers. First, they say the dramatic rise of the lake in the early 1980s was an historic fluke that may never happen again. If it does, the state has the much-maligned pumps on hand to keep the lake level from doing the damage it did the last time around.
If the causeway could be protected from high water, the other issue is an economic one: Would it be worth it to rebuild?
State engineers say $15 million to $18 million would be needed to rebuild a two-lane causeway including a bridge over an equalization gap in the dike. Davis County officials have their own estimate of $5 million, based on a road 4,208 feet above sea level, in contrast to a road at 4,217 feet used in the state's engineering calculations.
Certainly, the smaller cost figure has its attractions, especially since the the state has $12.5 million invested in Antelope Island State Park and continues to spend some money each year for minimal maintenance and upkeep. There is no return on that investment if would-be visitors cannot reach the island.
About $2 million would be needed to put the park back into shape. The park has parking facilities, rest rooms, picnic areas, and one of the largest free-roaming buffalo herds in the country. Attendance at the park averaged 427,000 a year in the last four years it was open. A $5 entrance fee to the park is being suggested to cover causeway expenses.
All of this is appealing. But trying to come up with the financing in this month's special legislative session may be asking too much. The state is faced with a court-ordered $137 million rebate of taxes to retired federal workers, which would leave state coffers essentially empty, including the rainy day fund.
In addition, the poor, the handicapped, the needy of all kinds, fared badly in the state budget in this past session. To spend millions on a lake causeway while those critical human needs went without would be difficult to sell.
Rebuilding the causeway and reopening the park are worthwhile projects, but they will have to take their place in line behind other, more urgent goals.