Legacy Highway: Short-Sighted, Wasteful, and Health-Endangering

The Legacy Highway is the State of Utah's short-sighted, wasteful, and health-endangering approach to traffic problems and growth along the Wasatch Front. We can do far better, with more creativity, less burden on taxpayers, and greater sensitivity to public health. There are obvious alternatives to Legacy Highway for traffic relief that do not perpetuate sprawl development, isolate members of our community, and destroy Utah's natural ecosystems.

It is my responsibility as Mayor, not simply my "personal agenda" (as recently charged by Rep. Kevin Garn, Deseret News, December 27, 2001), to do what I can to protect the health and well-being of those who live and work in Salt Lake City and to help plan wisely for the future. That is why I am a plaintiff in the current lawsuit challenging the Legacy Highway.

Rep. Garn suggests that my support of court action to ensure compliance with federal environmental laws is "frivolous." It is hardly "frivolous" to advocate in favor of better public health, wise long-term growth planning, and compliance with federal law. One would hope and expect that, rather than threatening and trying to intimidate those who ask the federal courts to determine if governmental officials have acted lawfully, our state legislators would want to make certain those officials comply with the law. Resorting to the courts to make sure the law is followed, rather than sycophantic obeisance to the one-voice, one-view, one-party political monopoly in our state, reflects a genuine respect for our system of checks and balances and for the democratic process.

In light of Rep. Garn's charge of "frivolousness," consider just two of the several claims made by the plaintiffs in the Legacy lawsuit. First, I became involved in the legal action because of the absence of any consideration in the Environmental Impact Statement of the adverse impacts on Salt Lake City as a result of Legacy Highway. Nowhere is there any analysis of the impacts on our air quality, our street congestion, our parking, our economic development, our water quality, or our pedestrian safety. Federal law requires an assessment of such impacts, but they were ignored. Does Rep. Garn contend that federal law does not require the assessment? Does he assert somehow that such impacts were properly assessed? Or has he made his personal attacks against me, and threatened retribution against the people of Salt Lake City, without any real understanding of the law or the facts?

Another claim in the lawsuit is based on the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the building of a project like Legacy Highway that negatively impacts wetlands unless there is no "practicable alternative." To demonstrate the impracticability of other alternatives, state officials represented through January 2001 that an alignment that would have minimal impact on the wetlands would be too expensive, at a cost of $460 million, as compared with the cost of the route chosen by state officials, which they represented to be $300 million. Less than one month after UDOT secured the necessary permit for Legacy Highway from the Corps of Army Engineers, the cost of the state's preferred alternative mysteriously grew over 150%, to $451 million. Had the true cost estimate been accurately reflected in January, there would have been no basis for a finding of "impracticability" of the alternative route; therefore, the permit for the Legacy Highway likely would not have been granted. Is this the way our lawmakers want our governmental officials to conduct themselves? Federal laws are not just obstacles to be overcome through misrepresenting cost estimates.

In 2001, the State Division of Air Quality issued health warnings on 31 days. In this otherwise beautiful valley, residents were advised not to exercise outdoors on each of those 31 days. The elderly, the young, and those with respiratory problems were advised not to venture out-of-doors at all! Is our concern about this worsening public-health problem ?frivolous?? Is our concern about what kind of community we will leave to our children "frivolous?" Armed with the knowledge that air pollutants cause cancer and magnify respiratory problems, and that 50% of these toxic air pollutants are caused by cars, it is a betrayal of the public trust for our elected officials to build additional highways, which will simply generate even more traffic, before building commuter rail, improving mass transit in our cities, and engaging in sensible long-term land-use planning.

In an effort to put their own spin on the disastrous waste of taxpayer money that has occurred because of the premature commencement of the Legacy Highway, several state leaders have tried to shift the blame to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, claiming they are responsible for the expenses caused by the work stoppage ordered by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, as noted by the Court, any damages arising from the injunction were "self-inflicted" by the state. Knowing of the litigation, and knowing of the serious risks of an injunction being ordered by the Court, the state officials had no reason to move forward with the construction of the highway, particularly when they knew they were gambling with tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

Constructive leadership requires making decisions that will help build a better future, rather than simply buckling under to the demands of one-person-per-polluting-car commuters who want to asphalt over more and more of our open lands, including rare wetlands, to further accommodate their increasingly expensive automobile dependence. Change is often difficult, and it is almost always met with massive resistance, as in the case of the first Salt Lake Valley light rail line. But a change toward more mass transit and away from automobile dependence will be healthy for our Valley, our local economy, and for the people who live, work, and visit here.

In the meantime, open dialogue, without threats, intimidation, and incivility, would be healthy for our body politic as well.