North of Salt Lake City, a 21st-Century Highway Revolt

Construction of the Legacy Parkway, which UDOT plans to extend north, was held up for years due to a lawsuit. Credit: Flickr user CountyLemonade

Activists and advocates who speak highly of those energizing days when community groups banded together to stop highway projects should consider a trip to Salt Lake City. Just north of the Utah capital, a fight to block construction of a freeway and instead build transit is gaining ground.

Looks like the highway revolts of the 1960s and ’70s have finally touched the Beehive State.

For years the Utah Department of Transportation has had plans for the West Davis Corridor, a freeway that in some form or another would run through the western part of Davis County, which borders Salt Lake County, and continue north into Weber County. Its route, which UDOT has yet to finalize, would touch a number of small cities and towns on the eastern banks of the Great Salt Lake, including Farmington, Kaysville, Syracuse and West Point.

UDOT is just about ready to release a three-years-in-the-making environmental impact statement for the corridor, with plans to present a draft this week. After a 90-day public comment period, the final version will go to the Federal Highway Administration. The feds would announce their decision by 2014.

But if resident advocacy and environmental groups had their way, UDOT would scrap the highway altogether.

A quick Google search for “West Davis Corridor” brings up dozens of news stories between now and last February on Davis County residents voicing opposition to the project. Residents in Syracuse have worries about the road’s proximity to homes and schools. Others have called attention to the threat to the region’s wetlands and wildlife. Some call the highway unnecessary, citing predictions that it would be at only 50 percent capacity by 2040.

In April UDOT agreed to hold a town hall in Farmington to hear questions and concerns, but closed the meeting to the news media.

Last week the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board weighed in on the issue, calling attention an alternate plan that would instead create transit hubs joined by east-west roadways, as well as improve access to existing highways to now only preserve nearby communities but also allow them to become more walkable.

“It’s an excellent idea,” write the gatekeepers at the region’s largest-circulated daily. “Freeways only encourage sprawl and long-distance commuting, neither of which Utah needs.”

The advocacy group Utahns for Better Transportation outlined these alternative options in an April 17 open letter to UDOT.

For its part, UDOT says a new highway is needed to handle a projected 75 percent population increase in Davis County over the next 30-some years. The West Davis Corridor would extend the Legacy Parkway, an 11.5-mile highway in southern Davis County that itself was held up for years due to a lawsuit.

The four-lane Legacy eventually opened in 2008 with an updated design that made room for a trail system, included better protection for wetlands and had lower speed limits.

Urban highways are a frequent pet issue for many smart growth advocacy organizations. Among them is the Congress for the New Urbanism, whose annual conference will go down in Salt Lake City at the end of this month. Given CNU’s persistent focus on highway removal — often in coastal cities, or at least denser ones in the Rust Belt — it would make for a good opportunity to acknowledge that in many places around the country, transportation planners are still keen on building new highways through urban and suburban neighborhoods.

And residents are still having to fight them.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationhighwayssalt lake city