Will controversial Book Cliffs Highway proposal increase tourism or boost oil and gas production?

The Eastern Utah Regional Connection Project would shorten driving times between Vernal and Moab, but critics question its motivations.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A proposed highway is once again being considered that would cut through the Book Cliffs in Grand County, connecting with State Road 45 south of Vernal, pictured here.

A coalition of rural county governments in Utah approved $2.8 million in funding last week to advance the environmental assessment for a long-debated highway project that proponents say would bring more tourism to northeastern Utah.

The Book Cliffs Highway, also known as the Eastern Utah Regional Connection Project, would connect the Vernal area in northeast Utah to I-70, reducing driving times through the region.

“We see this road as having regional importance and significance,” said Mike McKee, the executive director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. “We don’t have a really good north-south connection and this road does that.”

At a meeting last week, the coalition approved resolutions that increased a nearly $1 million contract with CIVCO Engineering to $2.8 million. The firm will prepare an environmental analysis of the project that will be used to assist the Bureau of Land Management in completing the required environmental impact statement.

Grand County, where most of the construction would take place, is not part of the seven-county coalition, and its county commissioners oppose the project, which they say is costly, unnecessary and raises environmental concerns.

“I think it is rather rude and disrespectful for the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition to be proposing a highway in Grand County,” said Grand County Commissioner Kevin Walker, who sits on several regional transportation committees. “There’s no attempt on their part to collaborate because they know we’re opposed to it.”

The Book Cliffs Highway has been a flashpoint in the region for over three decades. It was pitched in the 1980s as a way to reduce costs for oil and gas companies looking to develop fossil fuels in southern Uintah County.

But McKee, who served on the Uintah County Commission for 14 years, said that is a “mischaracterization” of the project’s current motivations. “Maybe at one time it was accurate, but I don’t believe it is anymore,” he said.

McKee argued oil companies would be far more likely to use a proposed — and equally controversial — railroad project in the Uinta Basin, which could quadruple oil output in the region, if it moves past pending lawsuits from environmental groups.

“I’m not going to say there’d never be a[n oil] truck that’d go up or down the road because highways are open,” he added, “... but we see this road as a travel and tourism road.”

McKee said the road would bring more business to Utah as tourists travel from popular destinations like Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to lesser-known recreation areas like Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Dinosaur National Monument, instead of taking the current fastest route through western Colorado.

The developers’ preferred route would shorten the current 3-hour-and-40-minute drive between Moab and Vernal by 36 minutes, according to CIVCO Engineering. But several routes for the project are still being considered, and Grand County Commissioner Sarah Stock estimates the project might only save around 20 minutes based on an analysis of a 2014 report from the Utah Department of Transportation.

With an estimated cost of between $200 and $400 million for the 35-mile highway and a limited amount of likely tourist traffic, Walker questioned the economics of the project.

“This road makes absolutely no sense if you’re trying to get from Vernal to Moab,” he said. “But it makes a huge amount of sense if you’re trying to get from southern Uintah County, where the oil and gas is, to I-70.”

In years past, it was difficult to make the case for the route given the number of less controversial Utah highway projects waiting for funding, but McKee said President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill could fund the project.

Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity, who believes oil and gas interests are still driving the project, is skeptical. She said the $2.8 million in Utah taxpayer money being used for the environmental analysis is likely being wasted.

“How likely do we think it is that the Biden administration,” Seed asked, “which has made addressing the climate crisis a priority, will sign off on a grant to build a highway that is its primary purpose is to help the fossil fuel industry, and also, as a consequence of its development, would devastate one of the largest areas in the Lower 48 without a highway?”

The Book Cliffs, she added, are “a critical habitat for wildlife and a very special place ecologically.”

The project has also met opposition from landowners along the proposed route, according to a report by KUER.

But McKee said critics are too quick to beat up on the proposal. He encouraged the public to learn more about the project and look out for the public comment period that will be part of the environmental impact statement.

“It’s a full public process where people on all sides are able to give their positions, their opinions,” he said. “That’s what this process with the EIS is about — the transparency of the public process.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.