Should a highway run through it?

  Utah residents are not sure they can live with Gov. Michael Leavitt's legacy. In 1995, Leavitt proposed a 120-mile "Legacy Highway," running along the booming Wasatch Front (HCN, 3/16/98). The four-lane highway would help shuttle commuters through the Salt Lake valley, and run right along the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

The proposal sparked road rage among critics, who said another freeway would only make traffic problems worse. Environmentalists and duck hunters argued that the road would encourage suburban sprawl and destroy wildlife habitat along the lake. Utah farmers joined the fray, fearing the road and surrounding development would gobble up farmland.

The debate heated up in June, when the Utah Department of Transportation decided to support running the highway through 160 acres of federally protected wetlands.

"It's a classic conflict," says Brooks Carter, chief of the local regulatory office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the project. Of the three alternatives, the state-supported option is the closest to the shore of the Great Salt Lake and runs through the "highest quality wetlands," says Carter. "Our guidelines say we can only permit the least damaging of alternatives."

One of the problems with the alternative that damages wetlands the least is that it passes "within a stone's throw" of Lane Beattie's house, according to Carter. Beattie, president of the Utah Senate, joined city governments in pushing for the route closer to the lake, which would give the cities more room to grow.

Now the conflict between the state and the Army Corps is moving to Washington, D.C. Members of Utah's congressional delegation have contacted Carter's bosses, trying to convince the Army Corps to support the lakeside route. The outcome of these meetings is uncertain, but, says Carter, "the closer you get to Washington, the more politics is involved."

*Cheryl Fox

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