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After saying current plans for the proposed West Davis Corridor freeway likely would destroy too many Great Salt Lake wetlands to qualify for needed environmental permits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now says it is far from any final decision and is discussing options to save the project.
"The corps continues to work alongside other public agencies to find an alternative that meets the project's needs while protecting important natural resources, including wetlands along the Great Salt Lake," Jason Gipson, chief of the corps' Utah-Nevada regulatory branch, said in a news release.
"The challenge, as always, is to find a point of balance," he said.
Gipson said the corps will make decisions on permits for the project only after the Utah Department of Transportation applies for them which it has yet to do. So Gipson said the corps has not taken an official position on the freeway, which would extend Legacy Parkway to the northwest.
Earlier this month Gipson raised serious objections to the currently proposed route for the freeway in written comments about the project's draft environmental impact statement.
He wrote that the currently preferred freeway route beginning at Glover Lane in Farmington instead of farther north at Shepard Lane "has the most direct and indirect" impacts to wetlands of all finalist alternatives studied.
Federal law allows the corps to give permits only to the least damaging route that is practical, and he wrote: "We believe the Locally Preferred Alternative does not represent the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative."
While the corps' letter said the Shepard Lane alternative is better, it asked UDOT to take a serious look at what critics call the "shared solution" alternative to avoid building a freeway by improving existing roads and adding more mass transit.
Critics of the project had rejoiced at the corps' first letter, saying it could force UDOT to change course. Randy Jefferies, UDOT project manager, also said the corps' objections "may lead to changes in the alternatives, the recommendations, the mitigation or the analysis" in the project's draft environmental impact statement, and that UDOT was meeting with the corps to discuss options.
Gipson said Thursday that the corps' earlier comments outlined areas that it feels must be addressed in the final environmental statement. He said it would use that final impact statement "to make a permit decision on the project," if and when UDOT applies for one.
The corps evaluates permit applications for construction activities that occur in the nation's waters, including wetlands, that are subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act.
"We continue to work with UDOT and other state and federal agencies to find the best solution for both people and the natural resources of the Great Salt Lake when considering this important regional transportation project," Gipson said.
Other federal agencies have objected to UDOT's preferred route. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Interior Department wrote letters saying the freeway could cause irreparable damage to Great Salt Lake wetlands that are important to millions of migratory birds and said the currently preferred Glover Lane option would do more damage than other alternatives.
UDOT has said that among reasons it is pushing the Glover Lane option is that it would destroy fewer homes and businesses.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, wrote last week to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell complaining about her agency's criticisms. He said federal officials care more about "a few acres of wetlands" than saving more people's homes.
The Legacy Parkway which the proposed freeway would extend was built after a four-year legal battle over damage it could do to wetlands. Compromise resulted in a parkway that has a reduced speed limit, special sound-muffling pavement, a ban on trucks and extensive areas of preserved wetlands, open space and a trail system.
No such mitigation steps have been included so far in plans for the West Davis Corridor.