The cost to expand Interstate 15 just got more expensive

The project, to expand the freeway between Salt Lake City and Farmington, would cost more than double what the Legislature has already allocated.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pedestrian bridge built over Interstate 15 in Orem in 2020. The Utah Department of Transportation issued a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed expansion of 1-15 between Farmington and downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023.

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The price to expand Interstate 15 through northern Salt Lake City into Davis County got a lot more expensive.

The Utah Department of Transportation released a draft environmental impact statement Friday, with its preferred alternative for construction plans in the 17-mile corridor between Farmington’s Shepard Lane and Salt Lake City’s 400 South.

In the draft, UDOT estimated the cost for the project might now be $3.7 billion — more than double the $1.7 billion the department initially estimated, for which the Utah Legislature has already allocated funding.

“The cost estimate is based on 2024 dollar values with two additional years of escalation,” a summary of the document reads. “The actual cost of construction would change depending on the year of construction, any phasing, and inflation.”

In a statement Friday, UDOT called the $3.7 billion figure “a very high-level cost estimate” for the expansion. The statement also said the $1.7 billion allocated by the Legislature was based on a 2019 estimate, and typical costs for transportation projects have gone up 35% since then.

The project, as proposed, would put five general-purpose lanes and an express system in each direction on the 17 miles of I-15.

UDOT said new items were added to the plan since the 2019 estimate was made, raising the cost. They include: an interchange at 2100 North in Salt Lake City; an improved interchange for I-15, I-215 and U.S. 89 in North Salt Lake; improvements to cross streets; a braided ramp between 400 North and 500 South in Bountiful; dedicated paths for cyclists and walkers at each interchange, as well as crossings; and a new multi-use path at U.S. 89 “to connect existing pathways to downtown.”

The draft said the project would require between three and five residential relocations — though that number could be 35 or 36, if property owners are willing to move.

“We want to provide the opportunity for, if people want to continue to stay in their home, they can,” said Tiffany Pocock, I-15 environmental impact statement (EIS) manager. “If they did want to relocate, then they would have that opportunity as well.”

UDOT’s plan also would call for the demolition of between 13 and 16 commercial buildings, and 10 parks and recreation areas.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

There are no plans to demolish homes in Salt Lake City, according to the EIS draft. However, 24 residential properties — all on the east side of I-15, between Hodges Lane and 300 North — are classified as potential relocations “because they are located close to the existing I-15 retaining wall and potentially could experience adverse construction impacts,” the draft said. One or two businesses in Salt Lake City would be razed to make space for the expansion.

“We do everything that we can to avoid having to acquire homes and businesses and, sometimes when that’s possible, we take as many steps as we can to make sure that we’re not taking those homes or businesses,” said John Gleason, UDOT’s public relations director. “But it’s not always possible to avoid it outright.”

UDOT officials said in the draft that during the study process, they will consider not building the expansion. However, during outreach meetings with west-side residents, officials said they had never heard of a project being canceled because of community opposition — though they knew of many drafts that had changed.

UDOT argues that the project would improve safety and travel times. “I-15 has aging infrastructure and worsening operational performance for 2019 conditions and projected (2050) travel demand,” the EIS draft reads. “These issues contribute to decreased safety, increased congestion, lost productivity, and longer travel times.”

The Wasatch Front Regional Council included this project in its 2024-2029 “Transportation Improvement Program.” But communities, especially on the west side of Salt Lake City, have strongly protested the need for more road construction — with some arguing that such projects often displace people of color.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rose Park Brown Berets and members of the west side community gather in the Rose Park Elementary parking lot to protest against the proposed Interstate 15 expansion on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023.

The I-15 project also has become a point of contention in this year’s Salt Lake City mayoral race — with former Mayor Rocky Anderson calling out current Mayor Erin Mendenhall at a west-side candidates’ forum Tuesday, saying, “Don’t accept the idea that the expansion of I-15 is a given. The mayor does.” In May, Mendenhall wrote a letter, published in The Tribune, that questioned the need for the I-15 expansion.

The publication of the environmental impact statement opens up a 45-day public comment period, which ends Nov. 13. UDOT has scheduled virtual and in-person meetings in October, but residents are encouraged to also submit comments online, at i15eis.udot.utah.gov.

“Our team will review the comments,” Pocock said, “make any revisions that come from comments, and then we would finish what’s called the final EIS in spring of 2024.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.