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Federal environmental review of proposed Utah highway projects would disappear under legislation that appears popular with state lawmakers. At least one environmental group is questioning the wisdom of the move.

HB80 would take advantage of an option allowed by Congress — but the state alone would bear the full cost of defending any legal challenge of decisions.

The House Transportation Committee unanimously passed the bill on Thursday, and sent it to the full House.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, the bill's sponsor, said the main advantage is that it could speed approval of large projects by months or even years.

Shane Marshall, deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said his agency already handles all review and decisions on simple cases. It also currently handles most of the work on major environmental reviews, but then submits results for federal review and a final decision.

The bill would change little about how projects are reviewed, he said. UDOT must still comply with federal environmental law, and decisions still could be challenged in court. Utah's authority could be revoked if the federal government found the state was doing a poor job.

Steve Erickson, representing the Utah Audubon Council, said the proposed change raises some questions, including whether the new system would still encourage the state to allow as much public participation as it does now.

He noted that recent major environmental studies on the proposed West Davis Corridor freeway led the state to closely study alternatives besides the one it originally favored because of concern expressed by federal agencies on the effect on Great Salt Lake wetlands.

He said he hopes the new system would still encourage and allow such public review and comment.