Backed by other Utah Republicans in Washington, the attempted end run around the courts comes amid settlement negotiations between officials at the Utah Department of Transportation and environmental groups pressing for a different highway route or transit alternatives to spare Great Salt Lake wetlands.
Hatch plans to insert into the transportation bill, which is nearing its final vote, language that would halt any court challenge over the environmental science of the road's construction between North Salt Lake and Farmington.
"The Legacy Parkway project is critical for Davis County, and really, it's vital for our entire state that we complete construction," Hatch said in a statement late Wednesday. "These unnecessary delays have cost Utah $220 million . . . and Utah officials have bent over backwards to address the environmental concerns."
More than a dozen environmentalists involved in the Legacy case did not return calls Wednesday to The Salt Lake Tribune. The unusual silence signals environmentalists' concern about undermining sensitive settlement talks, according to officials close to the issue.
But Craig Axford, a Democratic activist and co-chairman of the Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus, was happy to criticize the Hatch measure.
"We don't like legislation that really denies Americans access to the courts," Axford said, speaking for his caucus. "And setting aside any issues surrounding the Legacy Highway - and that whole controversy where there are legitimate issues - some issues deserve their day in court."
Hatch's fellow senator and Utah Republican, Bob Bennett, defended the congressional move, saying Legacy Highway has been studied too long and needs to be built.
"The opponents are using this process to delay and delay and delay to the point that they hope that ultimately something will happen that will prevent the building of the highway," Bennett said. "We're just going to say, 'OK, Congress [which wrote the environmental laws in question] finds all of the decisions are legitimate and therefore there's no lawsuit.'"
Bennett said the effort is not unprecedented and described the Utah delegation as "cautiously optimistic" the provision would make it into the final transportation bill.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals halted construction of Legacy in 2001, finding UDOT's environmental impact study (EIS) unacceptable. A revised EIS is expected out by the end of the year, and if Hatch's language is approved, the law would assert that no more studies would be needed.
Democratic state Rep. Ralph Becker, of Salt Lake City, said he was unaware of Hatch's efforts. His only comment was that it "certainly seems unusual."
Congress has used this method before, most recently to clear construction of a highway segment in Hawaii and to secure the right-of-way for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system, Bennett said. In fact, Hatch pushed through environmental exemptions for oil magnate Earl Holding for a road to his Snowbasin ski resort in the runup to the Olympics.
Last week, Republican state lawmakers in closed-door meetings on Utah's Capitol Hill were briefed about negotiations to resolve the Legacy legal dispute. Legislators were tight-lipped about details of a proposed deal. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s office also has declined comment.
John Njord, UDOT's executive director, said Wednesday he wasn't sure what exact language Hatch was pushing. But he defended the congressional move, regardless of settlement talks with environmental groups.
Njord said his agency's mission "is to deliver this project."
He added that the need for the highway is irrefutable.
"It would not be prudent to not explore every option available to complete the work," Njord said, stressing that the negotiations with environmental groups had not yet led to a full-fledged settlement agreement.
If Legacy litigation were ended, road construction could begin next spring and be finished in late 2008, though the cost has spiraled up from an original estimate of $451 million to $684 million, UDOT says.