Let the wrestling match begin.
State and federal officials are about to engage in a friendly but highly competitive struggle over where the 13-mile West Davis Highway will be built.The Utah Transportation Commission made the opening move Tuesday by approving the Utah Department of Transportation's preferred alignment for the four-lane highway. UDOT wants to complete the road between North Salt Lake and Farmington, west of I-15, by late 2002.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, watchdog of the wetlands, countered by telling state transportation officials - once again - that the route they've chosen probably won't be permitted under federal environmental law.
Over the next few months, the corps and UDOT will attempt to reconcile differences between "alignment C," which received a thumbs-up from city officials and all seven transportation commissioners Tuesday, and "alignment A," which the corps says is the route least damaging to aquatic habitat along the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
Also Tuesday, the commission voted 5-2 to endorse reconstruction of 22 miles of I-15 from 600 North in Salt Lake City to 200 North in Kaysville. The $900 million project, which could begin as soon as 2003, would widen the freeway from six to 10 lanes. The commission agreed to support improvements in public transit through the Davis County corridor as well.
Before the Davis County portion of I-15 can be rebuilt, UDOT wants to spend at least $284 million to construct the West Davis Highway as an alternate north-south route. The parkway-style road, paralleled by a trail system and landscaped berms, would become the first segment of Gov. Mike Leavitt's proposed 120-mile Legacy Highway.
Discussions about where to put the road caused a one-year delay in the construction schedule. Startup is now set for July of next year.
After Davis County cities rejected proposed alignments A and B as too restrictive to development, UDOT went back to the drawing board and came up with a third major pathway.
Much of alignment C, the "locally preferred alternative," is located west of alignment A. It leaves 2,300 acres of developable property untouched east of the highway. Alignment A would leave only 1,250 developable acres east of the road.
"We really tried to achieve local consensus on this. We realize we can't make everybody happy," said Carlos Braceras, one of six UDOT managers working on the I-15 North and West Davis Highway proposals.
But alignment C, according to UDOT, would impact 160 acres of wetlands. Alignment A would disturb only 115. To avoid impacts to wildlife, UDOT might have to elevate parts of the road, escalating its $284 million cost estimate.
In approving alignment C, the commission authorized UDOT staff to meet with federal officials at the regional and national level - the supervisors of the local federal employees who are telling UDOT it probably won't get its way.
Brooks Carter, chief of the corps' intermountain regulatory section and the man who has delivered much of the bad news, told the commission he believes higher-ups will concur with his assessment that alignment C just won't fly.
But, he said, an expanded and continuing dialogue is in everyone's best interest, and hopefully will result in a compromise route that can meet with federal approval. And it's still early in the process, he noted. UDOT has yet to apply for approval under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.
Twenty-one people spoke to the commission during Tuesday's four-hour public meeting at UDOT's region II headquarters in Salt Lake City. Eleven were elected or appointed officials and nearly all supported the selection of alignment C, although many had small gripes or concerns. Five who were affiliated with environmental or citizens' organizations asked that the road not be built.
North Salt Lake Mayor Jim Dixon referred to the road as the "Lunacy Highway." He said decisions about the road are being made before they have to be. He said UDOT is trying to complete the project too quickly and cheaply.
Cullen Battle, an attorney representing the Farmington Bay Advocates, said federal regulations on new road alignments are pretty clear: The only alignment that can be approved is the one that is least damaging to the environment. Alignment C, he said, is least damaging to potential development but harmful to the environment.
"If you choose C, you're simply asking the corps of engineers to veto your highway," Battle said.
The commission seemed almost haunted by Battle's comments, referring to them several times before making its decision. Commissioner Ted Lewis said he didn't want the commission to get into a "protracted legal argument," which environmental groups may initiate, if it could not succeed in gaining federal approval of the preferred route.
But UDOT officials told the commission that alignment C has the least impact on wetlands habitat. UDOT executive Director Tom Warne said alignment C "really does represent the best approach" and complies with the federal Clean Water Act.
Discussions on the alignment will continue as UDOT completes a draft environmental impact statement, which it hopes to finish in three months.