Salt Lake has an Olympian traffic jam

  • Cartoon of expressway running parallel to I-15

    Pat Bagley/Salt Lake Tribune

On weekday afternoons, I-15 in Salt Lake City has traffic jams that rival those of Los Angeles. In response, Utah has taken a California approach: Build more lanes.

Starting next spring, the city's main thoroughfare will be reconstructed and doubled in size at a cost of over $1 billion, the largest public works project in Utah's history. Commuters dread five years' worth of construction slow-downs; the EPA worries that the dust and emissions from the machinery will push Salt Lake over its pollution limit.

Looking further down the road, Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, recently revived a plan for a freeway hugging the western edge of the Wasatch Front, where nearly 80 percent of Utah's 2 million people live. "Growth is inevitable," says Ken Hansen of the Utah Department of Transportation. "The demographics demand some frightening and bold solutions."

Leavitt's "Legacy Project," a 120-mile road running parallel to I-15, would cost between $8 million and $12 million per mile; the governor says funding would require the joint efforts of government and private enterprise.

But money isn't the only concern. Farmers, hunters and environmentalists note that the proposed highway corridor includes lakeside wetlands and some of the last remaining farmland on the Wasatch Front. West Weber, a fifth-generation farmer, told the Salt Lake Tribune, "A new road would do nothing more than ... increase development, driving us off the land."

The Department of Transportation is conducting environmental and feasibility studies on the Legacy Project; public hearings will follow.

Meanwhile, Congress is expected to approve funding for a 15-mile light rail track down the center of Salt Lake Valley. Though the $312 million undertaking will improve the efficiency of Salt Lake's public transportation system, it will do little to alleviate highway congestion or air pollution, says Bill Barnes of the Utah Transit Authority.

Both light rail and I-15 expansion are scheduled for completion just in time for the Winter Olympics in 2002. Work on the new freeway would last well beyond.

Former HCN intern Jared Farmer writes from Provo, Utah.

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