November 22, 2019

If Wishes Were Brine Shrimp, Legacy Parkway Would Remain a Beacon of Transportation Inspiration and Community Connectivity Not Just Another Freeway

“This is an exciting day for our state, with tremendous positive impact for the state’s economy, the environment and its transportation system.”

-Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. signing the agreement in principle on the Legacy Parkway, September 21, 2005 (Deseret News 9/22/2005 Legacy Parkway Gets Green Light)

On January 1, 2020, the Legacy Parkway we have known for the past 11 years will no longer exist. What has become a national model for implementing context sensitive design goals to protect the natural environment, encourage more sustainable growth, and provide efficient transportation options is under imminent threat from a raised speed limit (55 mph up to 65 mph) and from a lifting of the ban that restricts large trucks (18-wheelers and double tanker rigs) from the parkway. 

Legacy was conceived through a unique collaboration between UDOT and local communities who worked hard to achieve this truly remarkable alternative to high speed freeway driving. Sadly, all of this will become just a memory on January 1.

So why are we on the verge of losing this extraordinary community asset? Some background will help. 

In 1996, Governor Mike Leavitt announced plans for a 120 mile long roadway that would parallel I-15 on the west side of Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, and Utah counties, from Ogden to Nephi. He called it the “Legacy Highway.” The first 14-mi. segment of the highway would be located in Davis County. It was here where the governor drew his “line in the sand” by declaring the Legacy Highway in Davis County a “boundary” against development further west into Great Salt Lake wetlands. And although it was good to hear him acknowledge that we needed to protect the Lake from encroaching development, choosing a highway to symbolize that was totally ironic because the location of the highway would have significant impacts on the most productive wetlands along the eastern shore of Great Salt Lake. 

Aside from this contradiction, many of us believed that the Governor’s declaration should have been a broader and more inspiring vision for Utah’s future and Great Salt Lake—a vision about how we could address our mobility issues and the connectivity of our communities that would translate into improving our quality of life, building a strong economy, and promoting good health­—principles consistent with what we called the Shared Solution. And today, these same principles constitute the Utah Department of Transportation’s new Project Prioritization Process that is used to rate impact of its projects. And this is why Utahns for Better Transportation, FRIENDS, the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Salt Lake City, who became plaintiffs in an eventual legal challenge, chose Legacy as our “line in the sand.” 

The project required a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process conducted by federal agencies to explore alternatives for building the road including a No Build option. Because of impacts to wetlands from the construction, it also required a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act from the US Army Corps of Engineers. From 1997-2000 the public participated in open houses, public hearings, and formal commenting. During that time, with the help of experts in transportation and planning, air quality, water quality, wetlands and wildlife, we advocated for a Shared Solution—an alternative to the highway that would protect the Lake and its wetlands and wildlife from undue impacts, while also incorporating a range of mobility options for communities. 

On January 9, 2001 when federal agencies approved building the project, we—now as plaintiffs—filed lawsuits 8 days later in the federal district court because the federal agencies failed to consider an adequate range of alternatives raised during the NEPA process. When our case was dismissed at the district level we filed an appeal, along with a request for a stay with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court granted the request and issued a stay against construction of the roadway pending resolution of the appeal. Following that, in September 2002, the court ruled in our favor, finding that the federal agencies had failed in their responsibility to consider an adequate range of alternatives and protecting Great Salt Lake wetlands, and directed those agencies to conduct a Supplemental Environmental Impact Study (SEIS). The SEIS had to consider the following: 

  • Practicability of a narrower right-of-way
  • Elimination of the Denver & Rio Grande regional alignment as a feasible alternative based on cost and substantial impacts on existing development
  • Alternative sequencing of the Shared Solution
  • Integration of the Legacy Parkway project and mass transit
  • Impacts on wildlife, including migratory birds

As work proceeded on the SEIS, we engaged in negotiations with UDOT, and with a legislative committee that culminated in an “agreement in principle” between the state and the plaintiffs. On September 21, 2005, Governor Huntsman signed the agreement that spurred a special Legislative session in October. Federal approval of the project was issued on January 9, 2006, in a Record of Decision on the Final Supplemental EIS Legacy Parkway by the Federal Highway Administration. And once the injunction was lifted, construction resumed in the spring of 2006.

In 2008, Governor Huntsman “christened” the Legacy Parkway with a maiden voyage on his motorcycle to open the road. It was a moment that many of us believed was a sea change in Utah’s transportation thinking—sort of anyway. And it was a unique celebration of synergy and satisfaction that was the result of a hard fought battle by the communities that resulted in the Legacy Parkway that we know today 

Legacy is a 14-mi. billboard-free transportation facility on the southeastern edge of the Great Salt Lake in Davis County. Designated a Utah State Scenic Byway because of its intrinsic natural beauty, Legacy is comprised of 4 lanes of quiet pavement, a slow speed of 55 mph, night sky lighting, and a pedestrian/bike trail with educational kiosks, benches, and opportunities for users to pause and admire the Great Salt Lake viewscape to the west, and the mighty Wasatch to the east. At the 500 South trailhead, auto travelers can pull off to stretch their legs and take a short walk adjacent to the Legacy Nature Preserve while experiencing the peace and quiet of the open landscape. Work on designating Legacy as a National Scenic Byway is progressing.

The 2,100 acre Legacy Nature Preserve consumes most of the west side of the Parkway where the diverse and important Great Salt Lake ecosystem provides locally, nationally, and globally significant habitat for nearly 10 million resident and migratory birds representing over 250 species. If Legacy is reduced to a big rig corridor, not only will the sounds of nature disappear from this unique experience, but the higher speeds and increased traffic will also have direct impacts on bird populations relying on these highly productive wetlands and uplands. Course correction on Legacy would be virtually impossible once big rigs arrive.

Breaking the sound barrier with the Legacy Parkway did not come without political opposition. And unfortunately, this opposition had a hand in the final terms of the Settlement Agreement that the Utah Legislature approved during the special session in October 2005. Those terms included lifting the restrictions on big trucks and slower speeds on January 1, 2020. 

The Utah Truckers Association argued that keeping large trucks (18-wheelers and double tanker big rigs) off the new roadway would set a precedent that would prohibit commerce and trucking from new corridors. Legacy Parkway does allow trucks with a gross weight less than 80,000 lbs. and fewer than 5 axels (similar to UPS and many semi-trucks). And currently all trucks can use Legacy as an alternative if there’s an incident on the I-15 freeway. And although it wasn’t an issue at the time, talk about the need for Legacy to serve the Inland Port has become a common refrain from politicos and truckers about why big trucks need it. The rationale for limiting big trucks and having slower speeds was not just to achieve a unique driving experience on the meandering roadway, or address air quality and noise, but rather to increase road and trail safety, and enhance the livability of the communities adjacent to Legacy. All of these values that we strived for will be undermined by lifting these restrictions. 

Unfortunately, under the circumstances we, the plaintiffs, did the best we thought we could with developing the terms of the Settlement Agreement. At that time, our hope was that before 2020 the political climate would have changed and the communities and users of Legacy would be successful in preventing the restrictions from being lifted. To the communities’ credit, different measures were taken to raise awareness and exercise political capital to support the cause. A series of open houses and panel discussions at Foxboro Elementary located next to Legacy brought large crowds to express their concerns and expectations about next steps. Between November 2017 and March 2019, city resolutions passed by all five city councils bordering the parkway supported the continuation of the truck restrictions. Public comments from the communities at the October UDOT Transportation Commission meeting also expressed the need for keeping lower speeds and needing a study on the impacts of big trucks. HB 366 sponsored by Rep. Melissa Ballard and supported by a parade of legislators from Davis, Weber, and Salt Lake Counties, and SB 119 sponsored by Sen.Todd Weiler—Woods Cross both requested extensions on the trucks ban to allow for more study of the impacts. Unfortunately both bills died in committee. 

The January 9, 2006 Record of Decision issued by the Federal Highway Administration, states: 

UDOT could consider the need to raise the posted speed limit and allow large trucks at that time. UDOT’s  decision to continue these restrictions beyond 2020 will depend on the pace of development and the rate of growth in travel demand.

In an October 2, 2019 response to a letter from Gary Uresk, City Administrator Woods Cross, to Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of UDOT, requesting more time for a study before lifting the restrictions, Braceras stated that “In this case, the law is very clear—the truck restriction is repealed on January 1, 2020, and there is not a legal reason to continue to restrict trucks from this public roadway.”

Legacy Parkway belongs to all of us. All we are saying is give the communities and this extraordinary asset the study it deserves.  

In saline,