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Sen. Aaron Osmond is proposing legislation to allow a toll road or perhaps a toll tunnel to improve a now-tricky shortcut through the Oquirrh Mountains between Tooele and southern Salt Lake County.
There already is a public road there, paved through Butterfield Canyon in Salt Lake County. But it's just a dirt byway in Middle Canyon in Tooele County, said Gordon Haight, assistant Herriman city manager and a chief proponent of improving the route.
"It is winding and steep," Haight said. "It is such a narrow road that it is dangerous," slow, and is closed during winter.
So Haight envisions widening it, decreasing the grade (perhaps with a tunnel) and paving to allow easier, year-round commutes. He says it would cut the usual 50-mile trip from Herriman to Tooele (using Interstate 80 to the north) to 15 miles.
It would cut pollution by shortening trips, improve safety, help handle projected growth, and, he adds, improve economic development by allowing firms in Salt Lake, Tooele and northern Utah counties to more easily use workers from each area.
"It's a great way to join all the communities together," said Tami Moody, spokeswoman for Herriman.
The trouble is money.
"Right now, money is tight everywhere so you're going to have to be creative," Haight said. "You can't just depend on the federal government or state giving you money."
So at Herriman's request, Osmond, R-South Jordan, is drafting a bill to allow a toll road or toll tunnel there.
It could allow private investors or governments to fund up-front costs, and be paid back over time through tolls.
"We would like to do it in partnership with private entities in order to reduce the immediate short-term costs to the state, but enable long-term benefits for all the taxpayers," Osmond said. He adds he is trying to "come up with the right language and approach to attract private investors as a possibility."
No such investors have been identified so far, Haight said. But if Osmond's bill passes, it would allow officials "to go out and look for opportunities."
He added, "The intent is to help raise awareness. If the public gets behind it and it's important to them, they can see there is an option to plan for the future."
Not everyone is excited about the idea. "It's certainly not at the top of our priority list for roads," said Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne.
He questions how much traffic really uses the route, and whether it could generate enough in tolls to pay for much. "I don't see a toll of digestible size being significant, even over a couple of years, to pay those kind of costs" for an expensive project.
Haight describes the road as "a heavily used commuter route" in the summer. Milne disagrees, characterizing it as lightly used on the Tooele side.
A feasibility study is planned to look at future traffic needs and examine how big a road should be to handle them, Haight said. Analysts would also look at whether a tunnel makes sense.
"It would be extremely cool. I'm an engineer and love tunnels," Haight said. That's just one option, but it might be a way "to minimize some of the cuts and slopes and be a little more environmentally sensitive" in a pretty canyon.
Milne worries about talk of a tunnel.
"I was told it would cost $150 million to $300 million a mile for a two-lane tunnel through that kind of rock," Milne said. "That's a whole lot of schools that could be built. That's a whole lot more surface-lane miles that could be built. That's the challenge."
Milne and Haight agree, however, that it would be nice to have an alternative route between Salt Lake and Tooele counties besides I-80 to the north, or another long southern route from Tooele through Cedar Valley to Lehi.
Accidents on I-80, which happen several times a year, often create delays of two hours or more. Milne said that will only get worse as the Wasatch Front's population is expected to grow by 1 million by 2040, including another 100,000 people in Tooele County.
Such growth would make improving the Oquirrh Mountain shortcut important eventually, but not "for decades down the road," he said. "Given the cost of construction projects, that's not going to be anything for the short- or medium-term."
Haight said the improved route is already needed because I-80 "is packed at rush hour," and improving the shortcut has more benefits than trying to add a lane or two to I-80.
Any improvements on the route would still protect recreation in the canyons, including accommodating hiking and biking, which Haight says already are popular there.
"We want to have that element always part of Butterfield Canyon. It is beautiful. It is a gorgeous place."
Officials from cities in Salt Lake and Tooele counties, the county governments, regional planners, Kennecott and other canyon land owners, the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority have been meeting, Haight said, and plan to continue exploring options for the shortcut through Oquirrh canyons.