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.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.