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The Utah Transportation Commission jumped Thursday at a money-making opportunity offered to it by Garfield County a deal that the county hopes might help it avoid federal red tape and finally lead to paving the famous Burr Trail switchbacks after 30 years of fighting with environmentalists.
Garfield County offered to swap $250,000 in federal funding available to it for design of Burr Trail switchback improvements for $212,000 in state funding instead essentially swapping away its federal funding to the state for 85 cents on the dollar.
"Federal dollars just have so many requirements that they are more difficult to use" than state funds, Garfield County Engineer Brian B. Bremner said in a telephone interview. He said federal money would require a small entity like his to use outside consultants to comply with all rules.
Also, "When you use federal dollars, you are required to complete a project in a reasonable amount of time," Bremner said adding the project could be long delayed because no funding has yet been identified for actual construction. "If you fail to complete the project, they come and ask you to pay the money back. We don't want to be in that position."
Utah Department of Transportation Department Director John Njord told the transportation commission Thursday that environmental requirements for the project would be the same with state or federal funding. Commissioner Meg Holbrook asked about it, noting that Garfield County and environmental groups have fought for decades over paving the trail.
While the deal allows Garfield to design improvements to the switchbacks more quickly and easily, the state receives extra money overall that the commission plans to use to help repair a landslide that has closed State Road 14 east of Cedar City for months.
Bremner said that having completed plans on the shelf could allow the county to move quickly if some funding source appears. "For instance, the Obama stimulus program asked for shovel-ready projects" for quick funding, he said. "If you are shovel-ready, you are in a different position."
Bremner said the county is looking at a range of options to upgrade the switchbacks that wind up a cliff on a milelong section of the trail owned by the county within the boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park.
"An upgrade would probably include some kind of surfacing. A minimum-level surfacing would be a paving. A possibly more artistic surfacing could include some colored concrete that would blend into the natural rock," he said.
But Bremner notes that the National Park Service currently "is hesitant to recommend paving, to say it nicely. We would still like to see it paved all the way through." Fifty miles of the Burr Trail is now paved despite past legal battles, but 16 miles of it is not. The road runs from Boulder to State Road 276 near Bullfrog.
"I think it's an emotional issue more than an environmental issue," Bremner said. "I believe that if the Park Service and the county really wanted to get together, we could make that portion of Capitol Reef National Park a showcase, a jewel of the national park system, and not do any environmental damage. I'm confident that can happen. I'm not sure that others agree with me."
Bremner said he figures environmental groups may again sue if the county tries to move to actual construction at the switchbacks. "That's the way the system works today: You be as contentious as possible. But I would hope cooler heads would prevail."
Stephen Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said his group and others "will continue to be engaged" in any proposals to pave the Burr Trail and other backcountry roads in that area. "We will review whatever comes in," he said.
He said SUWA is concerned that paving could "change the backcountry nature of that area by allowing people to drive at higher speeds," and adds that the beauty of the area puts it "on our priority list." Bloch added that his group does not know enough about the financial swap between the county and state to comment about it.