Opinion: Who does the I-15 expansion really benefit?

Road-building makes a lot of people in power a lot of money. And that is, unfortunately, the “Utah Way.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes border both sides of the I-15 freeway, in Woods Cross, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.

The Utah Department of Transportation’s (UDOT) comment period on the proposed $1.6 billion expansion of 17 miles of I-15 from Salt Lake to Farmington closed Nov. 13. Cost estimates are now likely $3.7 billion and a reminder that there is nothing free about a freeway. Don’t fret if you didn’t submit a cautionary comment, though; UDOT will disregard them just like they ignored the thousands of comments opposing a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Despite the progressive transportation rhetoric splashed all over their website, UDOT is primarily a highway-building organization. It’s mostly populated by road engineers whose attachment to asphalt, concrete and freeway lanes seems far greater than their commitment to mass transit, bicycles, pedestrians and car-free modern planning.

The UDOT folks can get away with this because our State Legislature (better known as the fossil fuel development cartel) has never seen a road expansion, housing project or corporate subsidy that it didn’t embrace with open arms, backroom deals and taxpayer dollars. Remember, special interests make up 82% of the campaign contributions to our lawmakers, and of that group, the top donors are Realtors, billboard advertisers, bankers, auto dealers and energy companies. Gee, that seems like a good reason to support car and freeway gobbling suburban sprawl and pollution, doesn’t it?

What’s missing, of course, is any consideration of the mountain of literature that proves freeway expansion is a terrible idea for many reasons. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) distilled the many studies documenting the folly of building roads to ease traffic into a simple bullet list that even a state legislator can understand. UPHE, unlike UDOT, is actually committed to “clean air, clean energy and a clean future.”

Freeway expansions have failed to improve traffic congestion in other cities. In fact, based on many studies, not long after completion, new expressways suffer even more traffic congestion. This “induced demand” encourages ever more people to drive ever more miles, which means another expansion in the not-to-distant future.

Freeways create urban sprawl and erect physical, social and economic barriers in cities that isolate, exploit and degrade parts of the community. In response, many cities are actually removing portions of freeways to transform concrete and polluting vehicles into mixed-use living space. Salt Lake’s west-side residents can certainly attest to the divisive and dislocating effects of expressways.

Expanding freeways contributes to air pollution, rising urban temperatures and to the greater climate crisis. Freeways are essentially fossil fuel infrastructure, thus building and driving on them accelerates CO2 release, chokes our atmosphere with dust and emissions and traps a lot of heat. Research shows that noise pollution, traffic accidents and wasted commuter time all increase as well.

UDOT’s future traffic density modeling seems to omit important trends. The idea that most people need to travel to work, school, shopping and recreation alone in their own personal automobile is outdated. Telecommuting to work, online education, app-based shopping, in-home entertainment, telemedicine, ridesharing and personal preferences all portend a future with (hopefully) fewer cars. Even with population growth, these trends will have a huge impact.

Freeways are a poor return on investment. By instead devoting $3.7 billion to mass transit, mixed land use (which supports people- rather than car-centric communities), communication infrastructure, affordable housing and land preservation, Utah will reap the rewards of cleaner air, strongly connected communities, well-paying jobs, less water use, protected open space, healthier residents and as it turns out, a better quality of life.

With all of this in mind, an excellent New York Times article published earlier this year dumbfoundedly stated, “Widening Highways Doesn’t Fix Traffic. So Why Do We Keep Doing It?”

A full answer involves geography, politics, economics, inertia, culture and choices. The simple answer, however, is that road-building makes a lot of people in power a lot of money. And that is, unfortunately, the “Utah Way.”

Eric Ewert

Eric Ewert is a professor in and chair of Weber State University’s Department of Geography, Environment & Sustainability. His current research and teaching interests lie in environmental studies, the American West, population, historical and economic geography and geospatial technologies. He has authored more than two dozen articles, book chapters, editorials and maps; delivered nearly thirty papers at regional and national conferences; and traveled widely in the Americas and Europe.

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