Litigation ends: If the settlement holds, construction on the parkway could start in May
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After eight months of negotiation between the state and a coalition of conservation organizations, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on Wednesday signed off on a compromise ending the litigation that has stalled the Legacy Parkway since 2001.
The agreement means the 14-mile stretch of proposed highway could start construction by May and carry motorists by 2008. It also means Davis County will get a jump start on a new TRAX line and a bus rapid transit system, and 125 acres of Great Salt Lake wetlands will be set aside as a nature preserve instead of housing big-box commercial development.
And it won't be any ordinary highway. The Legacy Parkway will be the first commuter road of its kind in Utah: no trucks, no billboards, a maximum speed of 55 mph, rubberized asphalt to dampen noise and only four lanes wide for at least the next 15 years.
"We now have a framework in which to proceed in a very positive direction," said Huntsman, who initiated the negotiations between the Utah Department of Transportation and the six conservation groups that sued to stop the road.
State lawmakers indicated the agreement, hailed as one that saves money, enhances the environment and solves transportation problems, had enough support to pass as a resolution during a special legislative session this fall.
To Marc Heileson, a regional representative of the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs in the suit filed in 2001, the agreement signals not just that years of contention may come to an end, but that Utah transportation is entering a new era. Building a parkway instead of a freeway "is a whole different mind-set."
Instead of laying an asphalt freeway wider than Interstate 15 in the middle of one of the world's most sensitive bird habitats, the state is redesigning the project to be nothing like a freeway, he said. As for the transit component, "TRAX to Davis County was not even on the radar screen" before negotiations.
The road design is a new opportunity to "civilize our roads," said Roger Borgenicht, chairman of Utahns for Better Transportation, also a lawsuit plaintiff along with Future Moves Coalition, Great Salt Lake Audubon, Friends of Great Salt Lake and the League of Women Voters.
The Legacy Parkway is part of the 100-mile Legacy Highway, proposed by former Gov. Mike Leavitt to alleviate Wasatch Front traffic jams north of Salt Lake City.
The conservation groups' lawsuit to stop the parkway project prevailed in November 2001 when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted construction after finding UDOT's environmental impact study unacceptable.
While lawmakers believed they ultimately would win in court, they, UDOT and Huntsman decided it was better to reach a compromise to get the road built more quickly in order to alleviate Interstate 15 congestion.
Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson enraged Davis County residents and officials and many state lawmakers when he filed a separate lawsuit over the highway's potential impacts on the city. That lawsuit failed.
UDOT estimates that the project, initially expected to cost around $451 million, is now climbing toward $690 million.
The parkway's prohibition against trucks exempts emergency vehicles and road construction equipment.
A science advisory committee will conduct a noise study to see how the design affects area wildlife.
The agreement also phases in other transportation projects and prohibits the signing parties from future lawsuits over Legacy Parkway.
Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, head of a committee composed of legislators, UDOT officials, members of the governor's staff and the lawsuit plaintiffs that worked to finally put the agreement on paper, struggled to sum up his feelings in a single word but couldn't.
"We are ecstatic, elated, excited, encouraged," he said.
There are details yet to work out, however.
"This framework is like a Christmas tree," Killpack said. "Now we have to decorate it and make sure we all agree."
Carlos Braceras, UDOT deputy director, said the agreement's dollar value hasn't been set. UDOT will give the Utah Transit Authority $2.5 million for an environmental study of TRAX and bus rapid transit from Salt Lake City to Farmington, and will pay market value for the wetland property, which he guessed might cost $7 million.
Heileson said the binding agreement will become a formal settlement document filed in court once the Legislature votes to appropriate the money for the study and the land. He said court fees weren't a part of the deal.
David Creer, executive director of the Utah Trucking Association, attended the Capitol signing ceremony.
He was angry about the agreement's restrictions on truckers.
"To ban trucks limits the effectiveness of commerce," he said.
Braceras brushed aside the criticism, noting the parkway will reduce I-15 traffic by 30 percent.
"That will help the truckers," he said.