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Battle Rages Over New Highway vs. Mass Transit

By Jeffrey Leib
Denver Post Staff Writer

Monday, June 04, 2001 - SALT LAKE CITY - This area, like metro Denver, has about 15 miles of light rail. And in both communities, mass transit promoters are actively pushing for the construction of more rail lines.

But unlike Denver, where rail advocates cooperated with highway promoters to win support for the southeast corridor road expansion and light-rail project, now called T-REX, mass transit supporters in Utah are at odds with Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Utah Department of Transportation.

Earlier this year, a coalition called Utahns for Better Transportation joined with Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson in filing suit to block the attempt by Leavitt and UDOT to follow the $1.3 billion reconstruction of Interstate 15 in this area with construction of a new $415 million, 14-mile Legacy Parkway north of Salt Lake City.

Opponents of the highway say its planned location puts it too close to valuable wetlands near the Great Salt Lake.

In their suit, Anderson and the coalition said the state's plan for the highway violates provisions of the federal Clean Water Act and fails to consider other transportation alternatives, including mass transit for the corridor. State officials reject those claims.

Roger Borgenicht, a transportation activist in Salt Lake City, said with the reconstruction and expansion of I-15 nearly complete, it's time to "reverse the order" of transportation priorities in the region.

"We say do Transit 1st for the next 10 years," said Borgenicht, about the push by the coalition and others to kill the Legacy Parkway and instead promote the widespread building of light rail and commuter rail in the region.

That not only will change development patterns, "but also the behavior" of those who travel in the region, he adds.

Stephen Goldsmith, an Anderson aide who is planning director for Salt Lake City, said one of his toughest jobs is to convince residents of suburban communities throughout this valley that they are wanted in the state's largest city.

"We want the people to come here," he said in an interview in Salt Lake's elegantly restored City Hall last week. "I say to them: 'We want you to come and recreate here. We just don't want your cars.'"

As a city planner, Goldsmith said an exaggerated focus on highway development means he has to spend too much time accommodating ever-increasing numbers of automobiles that enter the city, along with their parking needs and the traffic snarls they cause.

Michael Allegra, director of development for the Utah Transit Authority, said the Salt Lake area and what is called the Wasatch Front, a 125-mile-long urban and suburban swath resembling Colorado's Front Range, is ripe for extensive light-rail and commuter-rail development.

Last November, residents of three counties in the Salt Lake area voted in favor of a one-quarter of 1 percent sales-tax increase to support expansion of public transportation in the region.

An early use of increased tax proceeds could be construction of a commuter-rail line between Salt Lake City and Ogden to the north.

Part of that corridor would house the Legacy Parkway as well under the state's plan.

Tom Warne, UDOT's outgoing executive director, said the Legacy project should be pursued along with commuter rail.

Both are part of a "shared solution" for transportation congestion in the Salt Lake corridor, he said.

Denver's T-REX project is a similar "multimodal" solution to congestion in the south metro area, say officials of the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation District.

The agencies are partners in building T-REX, which includes 19 miles of light rail along I-25 and I-225, as well as 17 miles of highway expansion. Construction on the project is due to start in the fall.

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