It seems the lessons of recent history are lost on current Utah Department of Transportation officials. UDOT spent four years in the early 2000s in costly litigation over its plan to build the Legacy Parkway through valuable wetlands east of the Great Salt Lake. In the end, the state agency had to make many concessions to mitigate the highway's effects on wildlife habitat and open space.
Now UDOT's plan to build a four-lane extension of Legacy, again straight through what should be protected wetlands, is sparking protests from local residents, environmental groups and the federal Department of Interior.
In a 15-page letter, the federal agency said, "A new 4-lane freeway adjacent to the [Great Salt Lake] shore lands would have significant, irreparable impacts to the wildlife populations that rely on those habitats, would substantially degrade the value of that habitat, and would permanently alter the composition of the wildlife community in the area,"
That assessment is in contrast to UDOT's environmental impact statement, which states that effects on wildlife would be "insignificant."
That letter is a strong indictment of UDOT's "preferred alternative" and its processes in making the choice.
But just as compelling are the criticisms coming from the very people the highway is supposed to serve. Many residents of west Davis County have formed groups to loudly protest the proposal. Instead, they support a "shared solution" that includes improving existing roads to make it easier to drive from west to east, more transit options and more zoning that encourages self-sustaining neighborhoods and discourages driving.
Both Interior and local residents' groups favor the "no highway" option.
In protesting the highway plan, the groups make some powerful arguments: UDOT is too oriented toward transportation options that encourage sprawl; by the agency's own admission, the proposed highway would be "underutilized" for decades. Building unneeded highways not only anticipates more drivers logging more highway miles but actually causes such behavior. It's true that it's impossible to build enough highways to relieve congestion, because highways always increase driving and, thus, actually boost congestion.
The unhealthy air pollution along the Wasatch Front is another factor, or should be, in transportation planning. When residents themselves are asking for more transit so they can leave their cars at home and avoid adding to pollution, UDOT planners should pay attention.