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Know the West

Olympic onslaught: Salt Lake City braces for the winter games


Note: this front-page editor's note introduces this issue's feature story.

If Salt Lake City were held to the same standards as cigarette manufacturers, there would be warning signs on its inbound roads: "Chaos Ahead!" and "Allow yourself an extra four hours!" Residents joke that the fastest way to get from suburban Salt Lake to the Salt Lake International Airport is to drive to Denver and then fly back.

The area had problems entering 1997. Healthy growth, a term some see as oxymoronic, had sent the metro area spreading over agricultural land, engulfing small towns. At higher elevations, in the foothills and canyons of the Wasatch Range, higher-income folks were building new homes, thankful that they were looking down at and not living in the smog and congestion.

Everything got worse last summer, when work began in earnest for the 2002 Winter Olympics. An entire urban stretch of Interstate highway is now being torn up; light rail is being built; surface streets are being redone. All the while, a slew of construction projects related to the Olympics - skating arenas, a stadium for the opening ceremonies - jam the streets with construction workers and delivery trucks.

The reflexive reaction to sprawl at the edges and chaos at the center is that Salt Lake City and its suburbs lack planning.

The opposite is true. The articles here show that the sprawl, construction and chaos were carefully, precisely planned. Planning brought high-tech and other industries to Salt Lake in the late 1980s, and set off the first spurt of growth. And more planning then overlaid the Winter Olympics on an area already stressed.

In reaction, some in the state are now calling for a different kind of planning - ameliorative planning - to soften the harsh impacts the state's political and moneyed elite have visited upon the state. They are also asking the powerful Utahns who "planned" the present situation, much of it with the help of tax dollars, to behave in a less secretive and high-handed way.

Those in command show no signs of relinquishing power. Why should they? They worked for more than a decade to set Utah on a path that will keep their political and economic interests dominant into the next century.

But the game is not over. Well in the lead are those who wish to see the Salt Lake Valley filled with housing and businesses, and to see the state's relatively modest ski resorts expand to rival Vail and Aspen, whatever it does to the quality of life. But now, thanks to the rush to prepare for the Olympics, it is no longer just Utah's environmentalists who understand Utah's dominant political and economic game. The four years leading up to the Olympics will be more interesting, and may even be more competitive, than the two weeks of sliding and gliding in February 2002.