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Know the West

A road to nowhere?

  For more than two decades, the Utah Department of Transportation has planned to widen the two-lane road that winds through narrow Provo Canyon. Best known as the site of Sundance, a resort founded by actor Robert Redford, the canyon is one of the most spectacular in the Wasatch Mountains. One-third of the "road-improvement" project is already complete, but a $37 million, 2-mile stretch in the narrowest section of the canyon has run into a series of roadblocks.

Critics have argued for years that widening the road to four lanes would destroy hillsides and damage the Provo River, a popular trout-fishing stream and source of drinking water. Their warnings came true last year, when work crews cutting into the canyon walls caused four major landslides, shutting off traffic for days at a time.

"This is a living, moving canyon," says Julie Mack of the Provo Canyon Coalition, a group that has sued twice to stop the road, without success. "If you start cutting into it, it's not going to take it well."

The transportation department, dubbed UDOT, hadn't done any geological tests on the area where the landslides occurred, says Elliott Lips, a geologist who works for the coalition. The spot now shows a muddy scar over 200 feet high.

In December, the federal Army Corps of Engineers sent the state a letter saying the department was violating its code on the other side of the road as well. UDOT's permit requires an 8-foot buffer between the road and the river, but in several cases, the road was closer than 8 feet.

The incident was a "miscommunication," says UDOT engineer Jeff Baird. "There was only one minor violation. We were actually in compliance."

According to Julie Mack, encroachment on the river is just the latest sign that there's not room enough in Provo canyon for a four-lane highway. Her group is considering a third lawsuit. "Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong," says Mack. "This road is going nowhere."

* Greg Hanscom