Legacy Parkway’s truck ban and low speed limit will disappear without action by the Utah Legislature

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sign on the Legacy Parkway, stating the 55 mph speed limit. Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018.

Legacy Parkway in Davis County is a different sort of freeway.

It bans trucks. The speed limit is just 55 mph. Its mere two lanes in each direction have rubberized pavement to dampen sound — all designed to help adjacent wetlands and wildlife.

But that could change dramatically in a little more than a year, on Jan. 1, 2020.

That is when a 15-year deal expires, initially drawn up to end lawsuits by environmental groups against the highway. The truck ban will disappear that day, and the state is then free to raise the speed limit or look at widening the roadway.

But the Legislature could extend the deal, or parts of it, and preserve existing conditions. Some cities along the 11.5-mile route and environmental groups are pushing for the extension when the Legislature convenes next month.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is drafting legislation to extend the truck ban. But he says, “I expect it will face significant opposition because of the new inland port” in northwest Salt Lake City likely creating more truck traffic and a need to handle it.

The Utah Trucking Association says it has been waiting patiently for the expiration of the deal that it opposed. It views Legacy as a route that could greatly help truckers, especially many firms with yards at its North Salt Lake end.

The Sierra Club of Utah, which led out on lawsuits that helped create Legacy’s design, says it is not ruling out new legal challenges if needed to protect the area — but it hopes to work with the Legislature to avoid them.

Truce ending?

After a 15-year truce, fierce legal and political battles over Legacy could reignite.

They began when the state started building the highway in 2001 only to have legal challenges from environmental groups force a halt to construction.

The plaintiffs contended, and courts agreed, that environmental impact studies for the project and its effect on adjacent Great Salt Lake wetlands were insufficient.

Environmental groups and the state eventually pounded out a compromise in 2005 with a 15-year life that expires next year. This deal ending the bitter fight allowed construction to restart. Converted from a highway into a parkway, the road was completed and opened in 2008.

‘A civilized way to drive’

“Legacy created a more civilized way to drive,” says Roger Borgenicht, co-chairman of Utahns for Better Transportation, which joined environmental groups in early lawsuits against the highway.

“People have expressed to me all the time that they get home less stressed” using Legacy, Borgenicht says. That has a lot to do with the absence of trucks and commercial traffic and lower speeds. These combine with the views of wild wetlands unencumbered by billboards to make the drive more akin to traveling a less-crowded country lane than an urban freeway.

“Most communities build walls and turn their backs to highways,” he says. “But when Legacy became a parkway instead of a highway … the community said, ‘Let’s embrace it.’ The new subdivisions that came turned their front doors toward Legacy” and the pedestrian and bike trail system that parallels it.

Concerns of nearby cities

Woods Cross City Administrator Gary Uresk worries that many buyers in those new subdivisions did not know that Legacy’s truck ban and other characteristics were temporary.

“I’d hate to have them wake up on Jan. 1, 2020, and all of the sudden big trucks are coming by,” he says.

“I think we need to pause and ask ourselves, ‘Do we just want to turn it into another I-15, or do we want to keep it a special place?’”

His City Council last month passed a resolution calling for the state Legislature to extend the truck ban. Otherwise, it said residents near the parkway and those who use its trails “will experience diminished qualify of life due to the increased noise and air pollution created by the trucks.” Farmington has passed a similar resolution.

Both cities also worry about the effect on adjacent nature preserves, some of which were formed as part of the compromise to allow the parkway. Woods Cross’ resolution notes that the truck ban was created to help protect the wildlands, and that need has not changed.

Brigham Mellor, economic director for Farmington, says his city also has concerns about safety.

Farmington looked at 2015-17 accident data from the Utah Department of Transportation for Legacy and the 14-mile portion of Interstate 15 that parallels it nearby, he says. The findings? About 100 accidents on Legacy compared with more than 2,200 on the corresponding stretch of I-15.

“We believe that trucks have a lot to do with that,” Mellor says. “Granted, I-15 is used a lot more than Legacy, but it’s not used 2,500 percent more.”

UDOT position, plans

John Gleason, spokesman for UDOT, says his agency takes no position on extending the truck ban or other conditions of the 2005 deal, and that the issue is a matter for the Legislature.

But if it is not extended, he says the truck ban would automatically be lifted on Jan. 1, 2020. “We generally don’t have truck bans on any of our highways. Legacy is the only one.”

He adds that UDOT likely would start an engineering study to determine whether Legacy speed limits should be raised and, if so, how high. He says UDOT has no near-term plans to widen Legacy, but the end of the deal would give it the option to do so to handle future growth or congestion.

One thing that will not change is the current ban on billboards. The state designated the route as a scenic byway, prohibiting signs, says Gleason.

Truckers past ‘patiently waiting’

Rick Clasby, executive director of the Utah Trucking Association, says truckers are counting on getting access to Legacy.

“Our position is that an agreement was made. We opposed the agreement. Now that we’ve been patiently waiting for 10 years, we expect to be able to use Legacy as one of the options to minimize congestion and more efficiently use the highways,” he says. Legacy “would not necessarily become a major artery for trucking, but it’s a nice option for us.”

That is especially true for many trucking companies based in North Salt Lake. “They would love to be able to use it to access their yards. It absolutely would help.”

He says such a change also could help improve traffic on I-15.

“Any time two routes are available, it’s going to minimize congestion on one or the other or both. Legacy has done that. It’s notably made congestion less,” Clasby says. “But as we grow, we continue to see congestion and bottlenecks at certain times of the day” on I-15, and trucks being able to use Legacy could reduce that.

Sierra Club seeks deal extension

Ashley Soltysiak, chapter director for the Utah Sierra Club, sees the situation differently.

The conditions on Legacy may be needed to be extended to protect wildlife and wetlands — and that is exactly why they were put in place initially.

“We would like to see no increase in heavy trucks, no widening of the highway,” she says. “Ultimately, we want a healthy ecosystem and environment. We do not want massive amounts of air pollution” from trucks.

“We have really grave concern about what lifting the moratorium would do to wetlands and wildlife habitat on the Great Salt Lake, and do plan to engage very actively with the Legislature on this.”

Soltysiak says she is optimistic protections may be extended. But, she adds, she wouldn’t rule out litigation if needed.

Truck ban or more?

For now, Weiler, the state senator, is looking at trying to extend only the truck ban — and says that will be difficult. He is not proposing to keep the speed limit low, or ban future road widening.

That’s mostly fine with Uresk, the Woods Cross city administrator, who says the speed limit is often ignored now. “If you drive Legacy Parkway and do 55 mph, you get dirty looks from people as they speed by you.”

But he says continuing a ban on widening deserves more discussion as it could make Legacy akin to I-15.

In Woods Cross, “We’ve got refineries all around us. We’ve got two sets of railroad tracks. Now we’ve got Legacy on the west side. We kind of view Legacy as an asset for the community because of the parkway status. Part of our concern is, are we just going to have another I-15 on the west side?”

Environmental groups would like to see the entire Legacy agreement extended.

“I think 55 is safer. I think it makes sense,” Borgenicht says.

“We introduced a new kind of road that has been very successful,” he says, adding that the state should look at preserving that winning formula.