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Beyond being frustrated and weary, the project manager for the maligned Legacy Highway feels helpless.

State transportation officials candidly conceded for the first time Monday that environmental groups who sued in 2001 to stop construction of the proposed Davis County roadway remain in the driver's seat and they continue to veer away from Legacy toward a no-highway, transit-heavy alternative.

"These folks are in control of what happens from here on out," said John Thomas, who oversees the project that the Utah Department of Transportation has worked on for the past decade. "It is their choice to find a way to move forward or stall the project, which they can easily do."

Two things appear certain: UDOT officials are sticking with Legacy and gearing up for another court battle.

Even before the word "lawsuit" has been uttered, UDOT has done the math. A new round of litigation would take 18 to 24 months and would delay the start of construction from next spring to some time in 2009, according to Executive Director John Njord. His projections are contingent on UDOT prevailing over the Sierra Club and Utahns for Better Transportation at the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Njord highlighted a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency at a news conference Monday announcing the close of the public comment period for their second draft environmental study. The EPA gives Legacy much higher marks this go around than it did before the 2001 court injunction. Both times the EPA signed off on Legacy, but the improved grades strengthen UDOT's hand if environmentalists sue again, Njord said.

A lawsuit seems inevitable mostly because UDOT officials don't expect the "Citizens' Smart Growth Alternative" to adequately deal with Davis County gridlock, though they have not yet analyzed the finalized plan, which they received Monday.

While not ruling out a lawsuit, the Sierra Club and Utahns for Better Transportation say their focus is on persuading UDOT and federal agencies to adopt their alternative.

That plan includes no Legacy - in fact, no freeway at all.

They want to expand Interstate 15, as does UDOT. But instead of a car-pool lane, the environmental groups would include reversible lanes, giving increased capacity during rush hour.

They also want to expand Redwood Road, as does UDOT. But instead of letting the road end where it does now, they would extend it to Parrish Lane.

They also want to expand transit options, as does UDOT. But instead of following the 30-year regional transportation plan, they want it completed in 20.

Proponents for the "smart growth" alternative held their own news conference Monday in which they proclaimed their plan met the traffic needs of the corridor that is squeezed between the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountains. They said the alternative also costs hundreds of millions less than Legacy, will save more than 80 acres of wetlands and decreases commute times.

According to federal law, UDOT must select the "smart growth" plan because it meets the traffic needs while protecting more wetlands, according to University of Utah environmental law professor Bob Adler.

"The ball is in the agency's court right now," he said.

Thomas doesn't understand how the smart growth alternative can beat out Legacy.

The data Adler relied on came from UDOT computer models that Thomas helped produce.

"We ran six different configurations, always with their consultant agreeing to how it was modeled and coded. They did not meet the travel demand needs in that corridor," Thomas said.

He suspects the environmental groups and their consultants tinkered with the model.

Marc Heileson from the Sierra Club begs to differ.

"We stand by the data," he said. "It is their data."

UDOT must respond to the smart growth alternative as part of the final environmental study expected to be completed this fall. The alternative is one of more than 1,100 public comments collected since UDOT released the draft more than three months ago.

Njord and Thomas expect to stick with Legacy and therefore open themselves to another lawsuit, even though they dread the frustration and political heat to come.

"Going to court solves nothing," said Njord. "It is time to move on."

Legacy milestones

Past: In 2001, the Sierra Club, Utahns for Better Transportation and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson sued the state to stop Legacy Highway construction, saying the proposed road damages too many acres of Great Salt Lake wetlands. The court ordered UDOT to redo five areas of its environmental study.

Present: UDOT reworked its environmental review and then opened it for public comment. The Sierra Club and Utahns for Better Transportation submitted what they call the "Citizens' Smart Growth Alternative," a no-new-highway, transit-first proposal as part of their public comments.

Future: UDOT expects the Sierra Club to sue, delaying construction until at least 2009. The Sierra Club wants UDOT to scrap Legacy in favor of its alternative. The final environmental report is expected in the fall.