Legacy gets a green light
After nearly two hours of debate when lawmakers voiced support for the rights of citizens to protest government, complained about federal incursions on states' rights, expressed thanks that a needed highway would be built and smirked about the lack of interviews with Great Salt Lake wildfowl, the Utah House of Representatives on Wednesday night approved a settlement agreement that would end litigation over the Legacy Parkway.
The 50-21 special legislative session vote, echoed soon after in the Senate on a 22-5 vote, means construction on the 14-mile scenic byway could resume by May and relieve snarled commuter and commercial traffic by 2008.
Not one lawmaker who voted in favor of the measure fully supported the negotiated resolution or its accompanying bill to ban semitrailer trucks on the parkway. Some opposed it with a vengeance. Many, even some opponents, nevertheless commended the process.
Rep. David Ure, who helped create the anti-settlement group Friends of Legacy, fought tears when he said the solution was the best all parties could come up with. "We all know there are major holes in the compromise," said the Kamas Republican.
Still, the Utah Department of Transportation negotiators "walk on water," Ure said. "I pay extra high praise to the people that sat down to negotiate this."
Sen. Allan Christensen, R-N. Ogden, summed up the feeling of most senators: "This agreement is very distasteful to me, but I can swallow it."
The settlement agreement is the result of negotiations Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. initiated soon after taking office in January between UDOT and the federal lawsuit plaintiffs - the Sierra Club, Utahns for Better Transportation, the League of Women Voters, Friends of Great Salt Lake, Future Moves Coalition and Great Salt Lake Audubon.
In a statement issued after the votes, Huntsman applauded the Legislature and UDOT. "Legacy Parkway will increase mobility for all citizens of the state and others who travel in northern Utah," he said.
UDOT Executive Director John Njord's response was muted. No parties were planned, he said. "We just want to build a road."
The settlement requires the state to buy 121 acres of property that will be part of the Legacy Nature Preserve. Marc Heileson, spokesman for the Sierra Club, said everyone had to give up something during the 10 months of negotiations. Now, the state has a good project, he said, instead of a major freeway cutting through sensitive Great Salt Lake bird habitat.
The highway has been stalled since November 2001, when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found fault with UDOT's environmental impact study, which the court said did not adequately consider routes less harmful to Great Salt Lake wetlands. The ruling also said the federal process for issuing permits for the project were inadequate and "arbitrary and capricious."
The court actions and the likelihood of more lawsuits if the settlement couldn't be reached drove the deciding votes and rankled lawmakers who felt their authority over a state highway had been usurped by a handful of environmentalists bent on thwarting the will of the majority.
Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Sandy, mocked the Sierra Club's claims that it was unknown how the highway would affect the birds that nest on the Great Salt Lake, one of the most significant bird habitats in the world. "We didn't interview the birds," he said.
Complaints that the plaintiffs' strategy was undemocratic continued in the Senate. "The plaintiffs in this case could not get elected to anything, yet they are making public policy," said Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George. "They have cost the citizens of this state a lot of money."
Countered Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake City, "These are citizens who have the right to exercise their voice . . . I get the impression that some here believe they do not have that right."
Moss also chided lawmakers who had called the plaintiffs terrorists. "They're not terrorists," she said. "The League of Women Voters are these wonderful ladies."
Ann O'Connell, the Salt Lake City League's natural resources chairwoman, laughed off the image of her civic group as gray-haired women in tennis shoes. "We are a nice bunch of ladies," she said. "So when we do something off-the-wall, it invigorates us. It was really an easy decision for our board to make to be involved in this."
Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, was dismayed that some lawmakers seemed to believe the state shouldn't negotiate contentious issues in the future, which he said would mean ceding their authority.
Other than the ban on semitrailers and a speed limit of 55 mph, "everything else [in the settlement] the state controls or decides or would have done anyway," Clark said. "And you want to abdicate responsibility to the courts over that?"
Even Ure affirmed the constitutional rights of environmentalists. "You know what?" he said. "The Lord created them to have as equal an opportunity in the courts as anyone else."
On Tuesday, Ure predicted a House member would attempt to amend the Senate bill that tweaked state law to allow the Legacy truck ban. Ure said the amendment would be crafted so it wouldn't conform to the agreement resolution, which couldn't be amended, therefore scuttling the whole thing.
The mischief didn't materialize. The truck ban bill passed the House 49-21 and the Senate 25-2.
But Ure didn't stick around long enough to vote on it.
* Construction may resume by May and the Legacy Parkway could open by 2008.
* UDOT estimates the ultimate cost will be $685
* The deal has to run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Highway Administration and the U.S. District Court for Utah. No opposition is expected.