West-side residents voice opposition to I-15 expansion, distrust of UDOT

At a series of open houses, west-siders talk about pollution concerns and worries of being forced to move.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes in both sides of Interstate 15, as it winds through Woods Cross, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. The Utah Department of Transportation is taking public comment about a proposed expansion of I-15, from Salt Lake City's 400 South to Farmington's Shepard Lane.

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Residents of Salt Lake City’s west side had a chance this week to comment on the Utah Department of Transportation’s proposed widening of Interstate 15, and two major messages emerged: Many residents and community leaders don’t think the plan should move ahead, and some don’t trust what UDOT has been saying about the project.

UDOT’s team wrote, in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the agency issued last month, that no residents would need to be relocated along the proposed expansion route — which would put five general-purpose lanes and an express system in each direction in a 17-mile stretch of I-15 from Shepard Lane in Farmington to 400 South in Salt Lake City.

At open houses held in person and virtually this week, some residents expressed doubt that no one would have to move — while also saying they were worried about other effects of construction.

“We’re all going to be impacted,” said Jeff Medina, a Rose Park resident whose backyard sits close to the I-15 sound wall. “More lanes, more vehicles, more pollution. We already suffer.”

Medina, attending an open house at the Utah State Fairpark, pointed out the different emission sources the west side already deals with — including Salt Lake City International Airport, railroads, refineries and major freeways. “We have a lot going on and they just want to keep building,” he said.

Medina’s wife, Jamie, said she has attended most of the public meetings related to the I-15 expansion, and still doesn’t feel well-informed about the project — because UDOT’s team, she said, doesn’t provide direct answers to her questions. Because of that, she said, she thinks the proposal could change, and residents on the route would be asked or told to relocate.

“We’re in our senior years. Our home’s paid off. What are we supposed to do?,” Jamie Medina said. “Make it comfortable? Or stay here and live in limbo? I mean, it’s not fair to the citizens.”

Nigel Swaby, chair of the Fairpark Community Council, echoed that concern.

“There were a lot of people that said, ‘Don’t build, don’t widen the freeway,’” Swaby said. “We did get [UDOT] to not increase the footprint of the freeway, but the construction is still going to impact those homes that have been built up next to it.”

It’s hard to understand, Swaby said, why UDOT seems to be moving forward with the expansion, despite the public outcry from the west side — and an effort to correct policies that have made it possible to build highways in neighborhoods “where people aren’t going to fight you,” he said.

“We are a disenfranchised neighborhood,” Swaby said. “Our zip code, where this freeway goes through, is economically the poorest in the city — and we have the most minorities in the city, as well. … So for [UDOT] to continue to take this kind of action in our neighborhood, in this time in history, is just incomprehensible.”

Pollution problems

According to its environmental impact statement, UDOT expects the widening project to reduce travel times and congestion. With those reductions, UDOT predicts lowered levels of such pollutants as PM2.5, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds by 2050. However, UDOT’s study predicted that larger particulates — called PM10′s — would increase 27% over that period if the interstate expansion is built, compared with a 16% increase if it isn’t.

“Due to better fuel economy and vehicle types, such as electric vehicles and hybrids,” Tiffany Pocock, UDOT’s I-15 EIS manager said Tuesday, “we are seeing vehicle emissions reducing in the future.”

Some environmental advocates, however, said UDOT’s numbers feel shortsighted.

“UDOT cannot dismiss pollution concerns with a response that newer gasoline engines and electrification of the vehicle fleet in the future will significantly reduce freeway-generated pollution,” the nonprofit group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment wrote in its public comment.

Newer engines produce more ultrafine particulate pollution, “the most toxic subset of particulate pollution,” UPHE wrote, citing a 2002 study. The addition of electric vehicles won’t solve the PM2.5 pollution either, as “tire wear, brake pad dust, suspension of road dust and other mechanical friction account for 60% of primary PM 2.5 generated by vehicles,” UPHE wrote, citing a British testing company’s 2020 analysis.

“Particulate pollution from tire wear and suspension of road dust increase with the speed of the

vehicle, as does fuel consumption,” UPHE wrote. “These effects reduce the otherwise health and air quality benefits of reducing congestion.”

Even the asphalt of the road itself is a significant source of pollution, UPHE wrote (based on a 2020 article in the journal Science), increasing urban temperatures — which, the group argues, would exacerbate the heat disparities in Salt Lake City.

Based on a 2009 study of Texas roads, children who live within 300 meters of high-traffic roads are six times more likely to develop cancer, UPHE wrote. Proximity to busy roads, the organization added, is a risk for poor pregnancy outcomes and increased risk of dementia, stroke and premature death.

Terry Marasco, chair of the Jordan Meadows Community Council, expressed frustration that the slides UDOT showed in its public meeting didn’t include ozone levels.

“When west-siders look at this and don’t see the full picture, I get concerned that it’s misleading,” Marasco said, “and that we on the west side don’t have enough information if we only read [UDOT’s] charts.”

Between incomplete information and the lack of guarantees of the construction impacts, Marasco said he doesn’t trust the process UDOT is using to reach a decision on the project. He also said he wished the state focused its attention on improving public transportation.

“Most west-side residents, who came to many meetings, are totally against this,” Marasco said. UDOT, he said, is “encouraging cars by widening. Most of the research says over time if you add more lanes — guess what? — you’ll get more cars.”

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.