UDOT promises SLC that I-15 widening will stay in current right-of-way and “no residents will need to be moved”

UDOT officials faced severe pushback from west siders last week for the agency’s scaled-down plans for I-15 reconstruction and widening through Salt Lake City. UDOT is now making a series of promises to residents which include keeping the widening within the current right of way and not requiring any city residents to move.

Given the gut-busting alternatives that were on the table, those commitments to keep the widening to one lane in each direction in the Salt Lake City segment (one of five in the Farmington to Salt Lake City project) speak to the effectiveness of public comment so far on the project’s shape.

Yet it’s also become clear since UDOT released its “scoping document” two weeks ago, that the significant concessions recommended by project planners – like taking no homes in Salt Lake City and proposing the narrowest of widening alternatives—haven’t dissipated opposition.

On Tuesday last week, university graduate students, community and business leaders participated in a “teach-in” at NeighborWorks Salt Lake’s offices in the Guadalupe neighborhood (the residential area most affected in by the project in SLC). The following evening Mestizo Coffee House hosted a packed-to-the-gills panel with UDOT project managers.

While UDOT is finished for the moment collecting and recording public comment, it’s willingness to listen and respond to the public has been on display for the last six months. Officials managing the project have been monthly meeting with a community working group (convened by the agency), as well as on request with organizations and community members concerned with the project.

UDOT expects the penultimate draft of the EIS to be released in the fall. Besides final recommendations, it will contain environmental assessments absent up to this point. Another round of public comment will then occur, before a final EIS is published.

Here’s our run-down of the project’s latest shape and developments that you won’t find on the project’s website.

Full Disclosure: The author lives in the Guadalupe neighborhood, and is a co-founder of Sweet Streets, one of the organizations in the Stop I-15 Coalition.

Mestizo public meeting

UDOT has dialed down the scope of impact in Salt Lake City, but resident organizers are still dubious, and confrontation was in the air at a meeting last week hosted by community groups at Mestizo Coffee House.

Project officials were keen to highlight the adjustments they have made in light of public feedback over the last six months. They also responded to a barrage of mostly on point questions from the audience inquiring about baseline measures and questioning fundamental assumptions about the project.

Facilitator and former KRCL radio host Billy Palmer was kept on his toes curating an open but civil space for a prolonged question-and-answer session. UDOT officials did their best to give sincere answers to questions, many of which were aimed at decision-makers above them.

Here are some of UDOT’s public answers as expressed last week (5/17).

Bury the Interstate through SLC? No to ‘cut and cover’

In order to build a parallel road while a trench for traffic is being constructed, UDOT estimated that 180 to 1270 households would need to be relocated. This is a non-starter, officials say, especially as ‘Don’t take our homes’ has been a main refrain of public comment so far.

UDOT’s Shane Marshall told the assembled that “One of things that happens when you try to bury an interstate is that you have to maintain traffic while you do it.”

Temporary lanes built during construction would necessitate taking out hundreds of homes in tunnel options, UDOT insists.

When asked by an audience member why not divert traffic during construction and not take homes? Tiffany Pocock, project manager, insisted that would cause significant delays throughout the system, and UDOT won’t do it.

If the only way undergrounding can be done is by taking of hundreds of homes, well, that’s a pretty easy ‘No’. But planners are giving us a false choice, bounded by the path dependency created by the precondition of maintaining a high level of service during construction.

Offering to drivers I-80, I-215, Legacy Parkway, as well as major arterials like Redwood Road, Bangerter Highway, and State Street simply is not enough, even if only for the construction period. Let’s say three to five years.

That’s right: Underserving drivers during construction on this stretch of 1-15 is to be avoided at nearly any cost—even if the detours would only last for the handful of construction years. The potential to re-connect a city, likely in perpetuity, through tunneling the road < the need for speed of Interstate vehicles during construction.

“Our goal is to keep mobility high – we’re in the department of transportation, we’re not in the department of land development. Our job is to get people to their destination as safely and efficiently as possible,” Pocock reminded the audience, revealing robust comprehension of the transportation-land use connection.

UDOT’s case – SLC’s getting special love, we’re listening, adjusting, and…promising

UDOT officials took the public’s questions (and punches) with grace, seemingly responding as sincerely as they could, given they are the implementers of the project, not its authors.

Shane Marshall, former UDOT Deputy Director and current I-15 EIS Team Member, framed UDOT’s designs for the Salt Lake City segment as the agency being accountable to the wishes of the neighborhood.

“First thing we heard, over and over, was ‘get trucks out of our neighborhood’,” he told the Mestizo crowd. Currently, thundering trucks roll through the west Marmalade neighborhood from the oil refineries and the Staker Parsons mine (which provides construction materials).

That traffic has driven away most life on 300 and 400 West. UDOT’s 600 North bridge and interchange, which is a full four blocks (1/2 mile) long, has created a pedestrian and bike hellscape.

Spotlighting UDOT’s intention to “make 600 N different than it is today,” Marshall told the crowd, “we understand that people from Davis County don’t walk on 600 North. We’ve come up with designs that are so much different than rest of project.”

Boosting pedestrian amenities and safety is a priority on 600 North, officials reiterated.

Meanwhile, with the intention of relieving heavy truck pressure on 600 North, UDOT’s is proposing a full interchange buildout at 2100 North/Warm Springs Road, along with a direct link with Beck Street as the solution. In addition, it touts that improved truck access at 1000 North will also help divert heavy trucks away from Marmalade and Guadalupe neighborhood streets.

•Promise: No homes to be taken

“Another thing we heard: do not touch our homes,” Tiffany Pocock told the audience. Marshall’s claim that “No homes will need to be moved” garnered slight, perhaps skeptical applause from crowd.

Some of the homes, all Neighborworks projects in the Guadalupe neighborhood, that were threatened with removal in previous alternatives. They now only face major impacts during construction. Photos by Luke Garrott.

•Promise: All widening fits in the current footprint of the right-of-way

Shane Marshall repeatedly told the room that along the SLC segment there is enough room in the center median to do the widening without enlarging the footprint of the right-of-way. This week they will post GIS maps of affected zones on the project website, Marshall notified the participants.

UDOT’s Shane Marshall points to an orange line which demarcates the likely construction impact zone. Photo by Caitlin Cahill.

•Promise: Heavy truck traffic will lessen in west Capitol Hill, Marmalade, and Guadalupe, as 1000 and 2100 North will provide better choices for truck drivers who currently use the 600 North interchange.

Questions from the public and UDOT’s responses

.•Question: Why not mass transit instead? Receives big applause at the Mestizo event.

UDOT: “To meet all traffic demand, we need all the forms, including FrontRunner expansion. But building just one doesn’t meet future demand.” There were repeated requests from the public to put the investment into other transportation modes, rail being emphasized, and they all got big applause.

Public comments continue to favor expanding and improving FrontRunner and other transit service. Photo by Luke Garrott.

•Question: Why not protected bike lanes on 600 North, instead of just “buffered” (paint with a wider stripe) ones?

UDOT: There may be space adjacent to the sidewalk for a mixed-use path, but we don’t want to take homes so we’re still studying that.

•Question: Multiple studies show induced demand, and that new capacity gets used up quickly: What makes this project different?

UDOT: “Utah is growing, popular place to live, multiple number of variables we’re working on so we can contribute to keeping Utah moving ahead.” Same answer as above: we need investment in all modes.

•Question: How accurate are your demand projections?

UDOT: “We have a very sophisticated model. The expected demand doesn’t always happen on that date. But with the best intelligence we have, we can say we will have that much traffic in the future, and we want to prepare for it.”

•Question: Do you know what the impact of new emissions will be on air quality and sound levels? Gets big applause.

UDOT: Air quality analysis is due in the fall, which will take into account this project’s contribution to pollution in the region: “we’re still working on the air quality analysis, about this project’s impact specifically, and also working with the EPA team here in SLC; we will know more in the fall”

•Question: When the environmental impact numbers come back is there any threshold where if it is so bad that you wouldn’t do the project?

UDOT: “We can’t say what that might be. We are doing our environmental impact study,” estimating the impact of their project specifically. UDOT mentions that Wasatch Front Regional Council is involved in a regional environmental analysis, and that the EPA is doing a multi-variate analysis of the region.

Graduate students in Prof. Caitlin Cahill’s course in the U. of Utah’s Department of City and Metropolitan Planning are also looking at environmental impacts, specifically sound, in the Salt Lake City segment. Initial readings in Guadalupe show existing decibel levels above the threshold recommended for residential use to avoid hearing loss (according to the EPA and WHO). 

Public criticism – ‘this project is not needed’

If you take “induced demand” to be an arcane transportation concept, you wouldn’t have gotten that idea from community feedback since the scoping report was released.

Abundant, frustrated critique about the unnecessary excesses of the project came from various quarters.

Alama Uluave, former SLC School Board member (the first Polynesian in the state to be elected to that office), breathlessly commanded attention from the UDOT officials: “We are tired on the west side of these tricks, of being told what to do…for what? You want a bigger freeway, let me ask you? More volume of the freeway isn’t going to solve anything. No amount of overbuild and more cars on the freeway here is going to solve anything with transportation. Do you understand that? You need to look at other options!”

Nigel Swaby, a realtor and former District 2 city council candidate and current Fairpark Community Council Chair, read from the following letter, representing the Stop I-15 Coalition:

“The idea of expanding the freeway to only one lane on each side is expensive, counter-productive to homes and businesses along the corridor and induces increasing demand instead of lowering it. In the past few years, the State has demonstrated it clearly understands the concept of induced demand when it lowered the number of available beds at the new prison and in the homeless resource centers.”

“We don’t see any value in a lane expansion and stand in solidarity against widening I-15. Instead, we would prefer to see those funds allocated towards public transportation including double tracking Frontrunner to Davis County, increasing frequency of current transit routes and providing funds to subsidize ticket fares.”

The Guadalupe neighborhood has for decades made the best out of being sliced by the Interstate – art at the 300 North I-15 overpass. Photos by Luke Garrott.

Dave Galván of the River District Business Alliance and Mestizo Coffee House, has expressed his doubts about whether UDOT’s lane expansion can actually fit into the median as it claims. Galván told KRCL’s Lara Jones on the May 18 RadioActive program that even if homes are not being removed for the project, the construction impact is likely to be so immediate on Argyle, Rendon, and Hodges courts that “Even though it’s not eminent domain and a taking, it’s still displacement.”

In a conversation with Building Salt Lake, Galván reflected: “Remember when we stopped the bridge for the UTA trains here on 600 West?” In 2007, UTA and the city were making a cluster of routing decisions for the new Trax line from downtown to the airport. The first choice of UTA for the alignment (now the Green Line) leaving downtown was from UTA’s “Central Station” on 300 South and 600 West, north up 600 West and over the Union Pacific tracks at South Temple, and then turning west toward the airport at 600 West and North Temple.

The Guadalupe neighborhood, including at the time Neighborworks Salt Lake and Mestizo Coffee (under different ownership), successfully resisted the bridge proposal, seeing it as more of the same imposition of blight. Galván told us, “we were successful then, but this time around we’re a lot more organized.”

Email Luke Garrott

Editor’s note: This post has been updated.

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.