Sierra Club Secures Historic Agreement in Legacy Highway Battle
by Tom Valtin
The Club scored a major victory on September 21 in its 8-year fight to find a better solution to Salt Lake City’s traffic woes than the $700 million Legacy Highway when Utah Governor John Huntsman, the Utah Department of Transportation, the Sierra Club, and Utahns for Better Transportation agreed to shelve the highway in favor of a Legacy Parkway & Preserve. All that remains is for the state legislature to OK the financial aspects of the deal.
“This is a win-win solution,” says Club organizer Marc Heileson, who defended the agreement against 11th-hour attempts to derail it. The last issue to be resolved in the recent federal highway bill was a bid by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch to exempt Legacy from environmental reviews.
As originally proposed, the highway—paralleling existing Interstate 15, just a few miles east—would have taken or destroyed farms that have been in the same families for up to five generations and paved over habitat for migratory waterfowl. The parkway, by comparison, will be a 14-mile road that in design and concept nods to Virginia’s famous Skyline Drive.
The massive Legacy Highway project ran into public opposition from the get-go, with the Sierra Club and Utahns for Better Transportation leading the way. Construction of the highway just north of Salt Lake City began in 2001, but was halted by a court injunction. At various times the Utah legislature threatened to hold the Sierra Club responsible for all the costs of delays. But at hearing after hearing, local residents by the hundreds (more than 1,000 on one occasion), showed up to tell the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT): “We want something better.”
Over the past eight years, federal courts ruled repeatedly that UDOT and the U.S. Department of Transportation had failed to comply with basic environmental requirements on Legacy. Meanwhile, a new light-rail system (TRAX) was built—which now carries 45,000 riders a day—four more light-rail lines were planned, and a commuter rail line from Salt Lake City to Ogden (along the Legacy Corridor) broke ground.
But UDOT kept saying, “We need Legacy.” So the Sierra Club and its coalition partners designed a “Smart Growth” citizen’s alternative that involved adding to the commuter rail system, bus rapid transit, and converting portions of Interstate 15 to peak-direction reversible lanes. Finally, fearing that federal courts would not approve Legacy when a better idea was on the table, UDOT agreed to adopt the basic elements of the Smart Growth plan along with the more environmentally-friendly parkway.
Instead of a 300-foot-wide expressway and trucking corridor, the parkway will be a truck-free 2-lane road with lower speed limits and quiet, rubberized pavement. Wetlands that were slated for development will be saved through the purchase of 125 acres west of the parkway, providing the “missing link” that completes the Legacy Nature Reserve along the Great Salt Lake. The agreement also allocates $2.5 million toward an environmental impact statement for new light rail or bus rapid transit.
“We applaud the state for recognizing that citizens have very good ideas,” says Heileson.
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