by Howard Stephenson

Utah’s Legacy Parkway highway project recently took a giant leap forward after years of delay.  There is currently an agreement on the table to end the whole debacle and allow the state to move forward constructing a much-needed road.

While the “Agreement in Principle” has been signed in a press conference, the real challenge now comes in the process of placing the terms and conditions contained in the agreement in principle into statutory language.  The media has portrayed some of the hang-ups of this process as dooming the agreement, but I think these are to be expected and that the agreement will move forward.

There is a lot of dissention in the House of Representatives regarding the agreement but I think even some of the most ardent opponents will come around in the end.  Many legislators wonder why the state has to negotiate with “terrorists.”  They say that by allowing obstructionists to negotiate terms of the highway construction and use we set the stage for this to be expected in future projects.  They may be right, but the one issue they miss is that the federal government has given the obstructionists a seat at the table and the courts uphold their right to sue.  Consequently, Utah can either negotiate and get roads built or stonewall the obstructionists and watch I-15 slow to a crawl while construction costs mount.

State Senator Sheldon Killpack and Representative Stuart Adams have been a part of the negotiations process.  They recently published questions and answers regarding the project in the Utah Taxpayers Association’s October newsletter:

Will the compromise mean higher costs to the consumer?  No.
UDOT says we could be driving the new 14-mile alternative to I-15 by the end of 2008. When the project is complete, we’ll all benefit as 30 percent of the traffic on I-15 will shift to Legacy Parkway. Whether you drive I-15, or the new Parkway, you’ll have less congestion through Davis County. If I-15 were to shut down today there is no viable alternate route for commerce.

Plain and simple, we temporarily warehouse goods and people on I-15. This agreement will allow truck traffic onto Legacy as an alternate should I-15 shut down or be under significant construction. Trucks will have unrestricted access beginning 2020.

Will the settlement save money for taxpayers? Yes.
Construction on the Parkway from Salt Lake City to Farmington has been stalled since 2001, when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver placed an injunction on the project.

After four years of legal battles and construction delays, which have added $220 million to the price tag, the plaintiffs and UDOT began to hammer out a compromise. Concessions were made on both sides, so the project can move forward. Critics of the compromise, however, say that this new agreement will cost Utah taxpayers more money than if there had been no compromise at all.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This compromise saves money for Utah taxpayers.

Admittedly, the compromise adds two expenditures. The first is a $2.5 million study for LRT (light-rail transit) or BRT (bus rapid transit) route along the 14-mile corridor.

Would we be paying for this anyway? Yes.
Utah would not pass muster with the Feds unless we do a multi-modal study along the corridor when we reconstruct I-15. Sequencing of transportation alternatives is a major reason we are in current litigation.

The second expenditure would require up to$12 million purchase of an additional 125 acres to be added to the 2,100-acre nature preserve around the Great Salt Lake wetlands. Dollars spent on this acquisition are simply monies in the bank toward future construction projects where mitigation is required.

From a dollars and cents perspective the worst-case scenario would happen if UDOT and the plaintiffs forged ahead without a compromise. If each party were adamant that its plan was the only plan worth considering, Utah taxpayers would end up paying far more than the new cost resulting from the compromise. Plodding through another appeal would cost at least another $90 million and two years in further delays. $90 million far exceeds paying potentially $14.5 million for the transit study and land purchase. This doesn’t even take into account the cost to the private sector which will warehouse goods and services on I-15 until more capacity is added to the corridor.

Are the elements of the compromise a dream come true?
Absolutely not! We hate the fact that we have to negotiate at all. Thankfully all elements of this agreement expire in 2020.

Will we be facing future litigation because we are accepting a settlement? Very likely.
However, we will likely be sued again with or without settling this case. That is because there are federal statutes which support these types of actions. Within the Agreement in Principle is a provision encouraging voluntary alternate dispute resolutions. We hope this will save money in the future.  As far as Utah taxpayers are concerned, we believe that the settlement between UDOT and the former plaintiffs is a cost-effective end to an already expensive adventure.