Another highway will only worsen Utah's air pollution issues

 

It’s no secret: The Wasatch Front in northern Utah, depending on the time of year, suffers from some of the worst air quality in the nation -- and even the world.

When the winter inversion sets in, those of us living between Ogden and Provo can barely see the mountains a few miles away, thanks to the smog-filled soupy air that fills the sky -- air that we have to breathe.gov

In an effort to try and improve the situation, everyone from environmental groups to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has offered clear words of advice: Drive less often. Or, in the words of Bryce Bird, director of Utah’s Division of Air Quality, “The things we need to focus on are driving less, driving smarter  … (and) making sure we’re using the transportation system as best we can.”

So it’s puzzling that our local government and the Utah Department of Transportation support building a new freeway that would run through 120 acres of sensitive wetlands near the Great Salt Lake. And what is the rationale for this new highway, which would be called the West Davis Corridor? To make driving more convenient.

It’s taking too long for people who live in northwest Davis County to drive back and forth to work in Salt Lake City.  But instead of doing anything to promote public transportation or ride sharing, the transportation bosses want to build yet another freeway to speed things up. Please explain to me: How will that encourage people to drive less?

The freeway would reportedly cost about $600 million to build. Just imagine how much relief we could bring to both our commuter traffic problem and our air-quality problem if we invested that $600 million in different transportation methods. What if we put our money not into a new freeway, but instead, a light-rail system that would shuttle people quickly and conveniently to the already popular and efficient FrontRunner train system? It already carries thousands of passengers into and out of Salt Lake City each day.

Opponents of public transportation argue that it’s more expensive for some people to take the train to work than to drive. Imagine how $600 million might affect the cost to consumers if it were used to help subsidize their trip.

Over the last several years, Utah’s Transportation Department has done an excellent job of keeping the residents of Davis County fighting among themselves instead of considering the alternatives to a new highway. It does that by proposing several different routes for the freeway -- all of which would go through existing homes and neighborhoods. Residents have been told: “This road is going to be built, and it’s either going through your neighborhood or somebody else’s. Which would you prefer?”

In a panic, most residents have begun fighting their neighbors over whose backyard gets trashed. The resulting distraction has worked to the benefit of the Transportation Department and its contractors, enabling them to keep the real argument -- “Let’s not build this new highway at all” -- hidden behind the painfully personal plea, “Please don’t build it where I live.”

Local residents, however, are starting to wake up, and lately they’ve been rallying people to their cause.

Perhaps most alarming in all of this is the fact that Utah Republican State Sen. Stuart Adams, who serves on the Utah Transportation Committee and who has been a strong advocate for the West Davis Corridor, seems to have a conflict of interest between his role as a public representative and his role as a real estate investor.

As a part owner in the Adams Co., a real estate development firm, Sen. Adams stands to make a healthy profit from new residential and commercial developments that will be strategically located with easy access to the new freeway.  Ads for several of the developments claim that the property for sale is extremely valuable due to “excellent access to a future North Legacy Highway” (another name for the West Davis Corridor), and that this access will make the commercial developments a “significant commercial node.”  This conflict of interest has led groups such as the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment to call for Adams’ resignation from the Transportation Committee.

If lawmakers really want Utah citizens to drive less in order to improve the quality of our unhealthy air, they should promote solutions to traffic problems that don’t involve encouraging people to drive more. A new freeway would destroy homes and neighborhoods, seriously impact the wetlands that are so important to the millions of birds that spend time in the Great Salt Lake area, and worsen the air-quality problem we suffer from along the Wasatch Front.

We’ve already made the investment into a solid public transportation option with the FrontRunner. Let’s build on that instead of going backwards to the “build more roads” mentality that we’ve made so much progress towards leaving behind.

Colby Poulson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a businessman and commuter in the Salt Lake area.

Walter Eason
Walter Eason
Jul 10, 2013 12:45 PM
California has lived on subsidies for many years now. Sounds good until and eventually you are top heavy. California is broke, Taxes have to be raised, schools have to have higher fees, our gas tax now is the highest in the whole country. Moneys have been taken away that usually go to counties or cities from the state. Major counties in California are looking at bankruptcy and some have started filing. But is just like California the governor wants to put a bullet train through that most estimators finish cost will be over 20 Billion.
Jim Vance
Jim Vance
Jul 17, 2013 07:01 PM
Longstanding technical justifications for new-alignment highways revolve around convenience and reduction of existing congestion, sometimes with homilies from the highway engineers and consultants about "spreading the traffic around" or "it's just good planning" -- all are elements of a propaganda campaign to sustain a deeply-embedded "build it and they will come" induced-development highway construction Ponzi scheme which evolved over the last century since inception of the Federal-Aid Highway program in 1916. As each State created and funded institutional construction machines to build and maintain a national system of paved, high-quality roads while fostering the establishment of a capable construction sector in the private market, symbiotic evolution in the development industry created an array of interests associated with an expanding real estate marketplace and various market niches along the supply chain between raw land and completed buildings within subdivided parcels. In the most rarefied niche within any locale's market were those individuals and groups of "movers and shakers" who became wealthy and even more influential through early acquisition of land parcels along new road alignments well before others became aware of the prospects of and potential for enhanced access a new road would offer. As knowledge and awareness of a newly-planned road entered the public's knowledge, then moved through stages of design to actual construction and became reality, those insiders repeatedly syndicate their holdings at much higher value than the original price, with profits routinely recycled ("laundered") into targeted charitable and political contributions. All of those contributions are made with specific intent to promote complementary local bond issues for support infrastructure that would enable actual development to occur, or enhance their stature and influence in advance of the next round of what had developed into a high-level "real money" game among the upper-class leaders in every region and metropolitan area of the country. With the postwar boom of suburban development in every metropolitan area fueled by growing economic prosperity and stimulated with simultaneous onset of the Interstate highway system and flight from inner-city school desegregation to newly-developed suburbs, the legacy paradigm operated at maximum for several decades and its various institutional participants grew even more wealthy, powerful and influential as the participant base expanded and deepened in scale.

Regardless of the rise in environmental consciousness or anything associated with oil prices and fuel costs, the highway engineering corps continues to promote the creation of new-alignment roads as that process fulfills all of the various experience-based features in any individual engineer's checklist of professional aspiration and personal career accomplishments, while the development and housing construction industry insiders remain keenly interested in gaining more new opportunities for early acquisition of choice land parcels that can sustain their place in that high-level game or leverage some particularly advantageous site to feed their own supply chain for future activity.

This new freeway proposed for the Wasatch Front may have some beneficial effects for reducing congestion or improving travel times, but only in the very short-term as the real intention behind its creation by the regional institutions is to provide the necessary infrastructure stimulation "play" that will sustain the local "real money" game, and the ultimate result will be new developments which will generate additional traffic and absorb or attenuate the short-run improvement in operating conditions on the area's roads.