State transportation officials are frustrated that the Environmental Protection Agency has stalled Legacy Highway but remain hopeful the highway project will be given the green light once they iron out concerns.
Gov. Mike Leavitt said Friday he feels confident Legacy will move forward based on assurances he received from EPA Regional Administrator Bill Yellowtail.
"He told me that he had no intensions of standing in the way with the project and felt we needed to move forward. (His concerns) were not intended to be a veto or delay," Leavitt said of their conversation Thursday.
EPA was expected to approve or reject Legacy Highway within the 15 days after the Army Corps of Engineers gave its preliminary approval. On Thursday night, Yellowtail sent a letter to the Corps requesting more time and more information on various aspects of the state's proposal to build a 14-mile commuter route parallel to I-15 from Farmington to Salt Lake City near the Great Salt Lake.
Environmentalists had hoped for a veto. But opponents weren't too disappointed with EPA's decision that put Legacy on hold.
"(EPA) handed it back, which is not quite a veto," said Marc Heileson of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. "But I'm pleased EPA has concerns."
Yellowtail outlined various problems, including inadequate protection of wetlands and not adequately looking at mass transit options.
"On the one hand, (UDOT) says transit is part of the shared solution," said Dave Ruiter, wetlands coordinator for the EPA's regional office in Denver. "And so why didn't they look at it?"
Yet despite the concerns, EPA didn't veto it, he added.
"We think there is a way it can be resolved without using a heavy hand tool," Ruiter said. Now it's up to the state to respond, he added.
Clearly that frustrated transportation officials.
"We feel like we followed the federal process all the way through," said Byron Parker with the Utah Department of Transportation's Legacy Highway team. "We have an adequate solution and adequate mitigation. We followed all the rules and regulations and we should move on with the project."
Confident of EPA approval, UDOT has already awarded a $330 million contract to Fluor-Daniel, Ames Construction and Ed Kraemer & Sons to design and build the first leg of a project that officials hope will eventually stretch from Weber County to Utah County.
Parker said the contractors are ready to start work this spring, and "we could have it under traffic by 2004."
Legacy Highway has been on the drawing board for several years. The highway plan took some twists and turns in September when EPA warned of problems with the plan and hinted at a veto if the problems were not addressed.
A primary EPA concern is over the loss of wetlands. UDOT had proposed a 1,251-acre nature preserve, but only 332 acres of that would be actual wetlands. EPA officials told UDOT that the "least damaging alternative" had not been selected because it doesn't fully offset the impact to 114 acres of wetlands.
UDOT revised the plan to include a preserve nearly 2,100 acres in size, including 766 acres of existing wetlands now in private ownership. Based on that plan, the corps issued a notice of intent that it would grant a state permit to pave over the wetlands. EPA had 15 days to review it.
Ruiter said UDOT did a good job coming up with the additional wetlands but there wasn't a guarantee whether those wetlands wouldn't be impacted by construction.
"We raised the question that they should acquire the land. The corps didn't include that permit condition," Ruiter said. The Corps simply allowed UDOT to go ahead and build the highway before acquiring the property, he added. "There's no reason you can't acquire the land before you pour the concrete."
Parker said the concerns aren't really warranted.
"They have concerns we won't follow through in buying all that property and keeping it in the preserve," Parker said. " We will indeed buy it and keep deed restrictions on it for the wildlife."
A coalition calling itself Utahns for Better Transportation formed recently to block construction of the project, saying it will sue if the permits are granted. They are concerned that state traffic studies have not adequately addressed mass transit alternatives.
While state officials had hoped for better news, they are still optimistic that all EPA concerns will be addressed and the project will proceed.