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Salt Lake City is the most expensive place to build a new state prison, but it is the cheapest place to run one, according to recent reports provided to the Prison Relocation Commission, which is expected to recommend one of four sites by the end of August.

So the question each of the seven voting members must wrestle with is: How much emphasis should be placed on upfront construction costs versus incremental, ongoing savings over decades?

"I would say the long-term operational costs are every bit as important as the short-term costs of construction — if not more," said state Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, co-chairman of the commission.

Legislative fiscal analysts studied transportation needs and found the Salt Lake City site, west of the international airport, would cost at least $200 million less than the sites in Eagle Mountain, Fairfield or Grantsville over the next half century. That review focused on shipping goods to the prison and transporting inmates to courthouses and University Hospital.

The Salt Lake City transportation costs would be even cheaper than if the prison remained in Draper, according to the analysis.

"It was not lost on me," Wilson said, though he noted he has yet to make up his mind. "I think we inherently understood from the beginning of the process that proximity mattered. … And I'm interested in making a good long-term decision."

Wilson isn't the only one placing a lot of weight on the long-term costs.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the other commission co-chairman, said it would be "a big part of the decision we make. … The least expensive site may not be the best value site to the state of Utah."

And state Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, another commission member, said, "to me, personally, it means quite a bit."

While the state has spent millions on outside consultants to study each site, the commission has turned to legislative staff to look at operation costs. Stevenson said the move was made in reaction to outside groups that have fought vigorously to keep the prison in Draper.

Beyond the transportation study, Stevenson has asked the same analysts to compare the costs for water, electricity and gas. While that review is not yet public, both Stevenson and Wilson expect it to show that Salt Lake City would be the most affordable option, largely because it has a mature utility system. Consultants also expect a prison in Salt Lake City would quickly spur other developments because it would bring electricity, gas, sewer and water to an area adjacent to an industrial park.

That report and a few other technical details should be in shortly, and because of that Wilson is confident that the commission will make a recommendation in the next few weeks, well before the new Oct. 1 deadline.

While the ongoing studies make Salt Lake City look enticing, that site also has obstacles. The land is close to the Great Salt Lake and lacks solid bedrock. The geotechnical work alone is likely to cost more than $60 million. Overall, it could take $132 million to prepare to build the prison complex and that doesn't count buying the land, which is expected to cost more than the other three sites under consideration.

A Salt Lake Tribune poll of registered Salt Lake City voters found that nearly two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) want the prison to remain in Draper and 23 percent believed it should be relocated. Of the fraction supporting a move, 65 percent favor putting the prison west of Salt Lake City International Airport, according to the poll conducted by SurveyUSA in mid-July.

The margins of error in those two questions range from 3.7 percentage points on the first one to 7.7 percentage points on the latter because of the much smaller sample.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and the City Council are among the prison-relocation opponents. They want it to stay in Draper, arguing that the consultants are underreporting how much it would cost to bring utilities and roads to the site now owned by Rio Tinto, the company that runs the Kennecott copper mine.

Becker's adviser Lynn Pace doesn't want to say the city is a front-runner to get the prison, but added it was telling that the commission highlighted the transportation costs.

"Because if it just dealt with the cost of construction, people would have had a very different picture," he said.

"Putting it back in the capital city is going backward," said Pace, referring to the old prison site in what is now Sugar House Park. "We think the proximity issue is overemphasized, particularly with the economic-development opportunities [in the city's northwest quadrant] we see coming down the road."

Once the commission makes a recommendation, the debate will shift to the Utah Legislature, which is expected to vote before year's end.