West-siders are pushing back against I-15 expansion plans

UDOT stresses its preliminary process, but opponents are set on taking an early stand.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inversion conditions deteriorate air quality near Farmington as the Frontrunner train and highway traffic move along the I-15 corridor on Friday Dec. 3, 2021.

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The Utah Department of Transportation is honing in on its plan to expand Interstate 15 from Farmington on the north to Salt Lake City. And opposition to the proposal in the city’s west-side neighborhoods–from Rose Park, to Fairpark, to Glendale--is heating up.

Last week, in a series of public meetings UDOT shared the details of several different proposals to widen the corridor. Utahns have until Jan. 13 to comment on the proposals. On Wednesday, UDOT spokesman John Gleason told The Tribune the agency changed the public comment deadline from the original date of Dec. 16, in response to requests from residents and community and elected leaders.

In one option, the mainline I-15 corridor would have five general purpose lanes and an express lane in each direction. The second option would be fairly similar, except the central express lanes could be reversed to serve morning and evening traffic demands.

The agency also outlined different possibilities for off ramps, crossings, bike lanes and pedestrian pathways.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

But residents who would be affected have begun pushing back against any freeway expansion at all. Opponents say the $1.6 billion appropriated for the project should be targeted toward beefing up public transportation in the region.

“This money would be better spent on public transportation and safety infrastructure. Especially when we’re talking about a generational remodeling or adjusting of I-15,” said Alex Cragun, a board member of Sweet Streets, an advocacy group that has a mission of supporting “streets and public spaces that welcome all users.”

Rather than spending the funds on highway widening, Cragun said, “let’s go and use this funding to really build out our public transportation, transportation infrastructure, so that all have better and more equitable access to those services.”

“It’s a matter of how they do it”

The UDOT proposal took another hit this week with opposition from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

While she appreciates the components of the project that improve bicycle and pedestrian crossings, Mendenhall said, “I can’t support the consumption of neighborhoods for the sake of a few minutes of improved commuting.

“I think it’s naive to believe that they would simply not do the expansion,” Mendenhall continued. “It’s a matter of how they do it.”

UDOT officials say without substantial widening of the highway, commute times along the Farmington to Salt Lake City corridor will more than double.

They also emphasize the plan is in the early phases of creating an environmental impact statement, with public engagement built into the process.

“The EIS process is basically a very robust decision making process where no predetermined disposition is ever set,” Tiffany Pocock, UDOT project manager, said. “From here, we still have a ton of work to do.We still consider this early.”

Many are wondering if their homes or businesses might be impacted by the proposed widening.

“With any possible widening there is always the possibility that the natural and built environment next door could be impacted,” Pocock said. “But we’re not there yet.” She said specific details won’t be determined until the draft environmental impact statement is completed, likely in another year.

But west side residents have already begun to raise their voices against the proposal.

Though the impact of the widening in the adjacent neighborhoods is still uncertain, the project has raised anxiety around displacement, the magnification of the car culture in Salt Lake County and worsening air quality conditions among Salt Lake City west siders.

Car culture or history?

Becky Benavidez, a long-time Fairpark resident, lives just a block east of the freeway, so she is already thinking about the possibility of having her home demolished to make room for the road.

“I don’t think it’s fair that we have built, put so much time, effort, love into our neighborhood for them to come and destroy it,” she said, highlighting that she doesn’t understand how the expansion would be useful south of 600 North.

For her, the thought of demolishing her home is “devastating,” especially after investing in a lot of home improvements over the last couple of years. Beyond that, the expansion would erase an important piece of her family history.

“It’s a third-generation home. My grandma has been there since the ‘50s. She’s 101 and she’s still there,” Benavidez said. “So, it would be sad.”

Catherine Mortimer, who lives in Glendale, is frustrated that the state already allocated funds for the expansion. In her view, the money could go to other pedestrian-friendly solutions, such as the Rio Grande Plan.

“That could do so much great for our city,” she said, “where this [I-15 widening] just perpetuates the [city’s] east-west divide and creates far more pollution that our beautiful valley just can’t sustain anymore.”

Mortimer, who biked to Rose Park Elementary School to speak out against the project, believes the UDOT proposal would backfire, increasing traffic and exacerbating the poor air quality on the west side, which still suffers the consequences of redlining practices; housing a disproportionate amount of polluting industries and not so many environmental reliefs, such as trees.

Walking into the UDOT informational meeting, Mortimer said she felt like the decision of expanding the highway has already been made, and that the state is just looking for feedback on which alternatives the community prefers. But she hopes to flip that with the help of her neighbors.

“I have to have hope, I have to show up, which is why I’m here,” she said.”

Salt Lake City Council Member Victoria Petro-Eschler, who represents Rose Park in District 1, has registered firm opposition to the scenario all along.

“To widen the highway and imperil the homes of my westside neighbors is a wholly unacceptable plan–especially when we’re planning for the next 50 years,” Petro-Eschler responded in a text to The Tribune.

She’d like to see the highway from 600 North to 1300 South hidden underground. Petro-Eschler believes burying the interstate would improve the quality of life for residents and “would allow us to reclaim land and create housing or a business district.”

“The west side has already been scarred by the highway system. We’re bordered on three sides by them and incur the connectivity difficulties they cause, the sound pollution they create, the pm 2.5 [pollution particles] they emit,” Petro-Eschler wrote.

Pocock, at UDOT, said “now is the time to start getting engaged.” There will be more opportunities for public comment as UDOT continues the EIS processes, and for those who don’t want I-15 widened, she said alternative suggestions are helpful.

“We cannot keep adding lanes to I-15,” Gov. Spencer Cox said this past August during the debut of the new FrontRunner station in Vineyard.

Noting that the public comment period for I-15 widening proposals is still ongoing, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, director of communications for the governor, wrote in an email, “Since Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the nation, Gov. Cox understands the need for expanding not only public transit, but highways, roads and trails to get people where they need to go. Smart infrastructure is crucial to Utah’s future.”

“This is not the end of the conversation,” she said.