WOODS CROSS You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as the Legacy Parkway officially opened Saturday. That sigh came from state and local leaders and from construction officials but will likely be echoed Monday, when the first commuters get their crack at Utah's first parkway.
Saturday spelled relief for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who began trying, nearly as soon as he took office, to broker a compromise out of the sticky litigation that held up the parkway's construction from 2001 to 2006.
It spelled relief for John Njord, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, who has been reminded daily by a bright orange sticker in his briefcase to "build Legacy now."
"The Legacy Parkway is done," he declared to Huntsman at the parkway's grand opening in Woods Cross.
"The Legacy begins today."
And with a countdown by a crowd of hundreds, Huntsman, Njord, Utah Transportation Commission chairman Stuart Adams and others on motorcycles, flanked by a motorcade of classic cars, Utah Highway Patrol motorcycles and construction company pickups, began driving south from the new 500 South interchange, one of four new interchanges designed to improve traffic circulation in Davis County.
They were followed by actual traffic from the north. And shortly after 4:40 p.m., traffic was flowing freely in both directions.
And there it is: Utah's newest road. It's almost hard to get over the fact that such a to-do was made over 14 miles of pavement.
But it just wouldn't be Legacy without it.
It's been a big deal since local leaders began discussing the reality of a West Davis Highway, a highway envisioned by local planners since the 1960s but something that became nearly tangible in the 1990s.
Construction started in 2001 with a $451 million budget, but a lawsuit in November 2001 by the Sierra Club, Utahns for Better Transportation and then-Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson in 2001 led to an injunction that halted progress on the roadway until 2006.
The lawsuit had challenged the decision by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and Army Corps of Engineers to allow Utah to build the parkway, but a deal brokered in late 2006 allowed it to move forward again with a much higher budget of $685 million.
Marc Heileson, southwest representative of the Sierra Club, said Saturday he's happy with the way Legacy has turned out.
Original plans called for a six-lane interstate-type highway with no transit component and which lacked environmental sensitivity, he said.
The agreement between lawsuit plaintiffs and state leaders toned down the parkway to a four-lane asphalt road with a 55 mph speed limit and limited to trucks of five axles or more. It also increased the size of the Legacy Nature Preserve from 2,000 acres to 2,225 acres.
Earlier this year, FrontRunner, a commuter rail line, opened to the public and provides an alternative mode of transportation for Weber and Davis County commuters.
Legacy also provides an alternative, Adams said.
When a 110-foot tank fell off of two semitrailers in North Salt Lake July 30, traffic was backed up for hours. Adams said a friend of his drove home to Layton by way of I-80, Park City, Coalville and Weber Canyon to avoid the snarled traffic.
"Until today, probably the best alternative (was that route)," Adams said.
An open Legacy Parkway could have diverted thousands of vehicles around the crash site.
As it is, the parkway is expected to divert 45,000 vehicles, or 30 percent of traffic, from I-15 during rush hour each day.
But even though you can drive the 14-mile parkway, it's not done yet.
About 20,000 drought-tolerant native plants will be planted to landscape and beautify the parkway and trail system, and more than 2,600 shade trees will be planted to assist with visual screening and to minimize roadway noise.
Legacy was funded completely from the state's Centennial Highway Fund, generated by the fuel tax, which was increased by 5 cents in the late 1990s, as well as a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees in the same decade.
Njord said he's confident the project will come in at or under budget. Eventually, UDOT will begin selling off parts of large parcels of land no longer needed for construction. Currently, it's the second-largest project in UDOT's history after the $1.6 billion I-15 reconstruction in Salt Lake County leading up to the 2002 Olympic Games. But Legacy will drop to third place once the I-15 reconstruction project about to descend on Utah County is completed with a price tag of $2.6 billion.
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