After years of delay and a bitter court fight, the Legacy Parkway "absolutely" will be built.
Lawmakers meeting in special session approved a settlement Wednesday night between the state and plaintiffs in the 2001 suit that halted construction of the 14-mile road. The agreement has several provisions, including a controversial ban on truck traffic and restrictions on speed limits. It also prohibits, with some exceptions, plaintiffs from suing again,
The House approved the deal 50-21; the Senate approved it 22-5. A separate bill that bans trucks on Legacy was approved in the Senate 25-2; the House approved it 49-21.
"This is a significant breakthrough," said Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. "The road is going to be built, and we will be beginning construction this spring. This is a very good decision for the entire state. People in Davis County will jump for joy, but this is not just for Davis County."
Herbert sat through nearly two hours of debate in the House, watching with a collective group of plaintiffs and officials with the Utah Department of Transportation. As the votes came through, Marc Heileson, regional representative for the Sierra Club, slapped the back of the man sitting next to him.
"It is definitely a time for everyone in Utah to celebrate," Heileson said after the debate. "What started as a massive freeway is now a smart-growth parkway."
By approving the settlement agreement, the state is now on track to begin construction on Legacy next spring. The next step is for the federal agencies that give permits to UDOT to release a final supplemental environmental study of the roadway. UDOT spokesman Tom Hudachko said the study will be released today and posted on the agency's Web site.
After the study is released, UDOT will need to apply for federal permits and then go back to court to ask that the injunction on the road be lifted. The injunction was imposed in 2002 after a successful lawsuit by the Sierra Club, Utahns for Better Transportation and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
Wednesday was the result of months of negotiations between the governor's office, UDOT and plaintiffs who were hoping to avoid more court delay. UDOT maintains that if the settlement didn't pass Wednesday, construction on Legacy would have been stalled in court and costs would have increased by at least another $100 million.
The current cost of the road is $680 million, about $200 more than the original estimated cost.
"The thought of starting construction without litigation this spring and seeing this road completed is excitingly emotional," said Rep. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. Adams was part of a team of lawmakers pushing for the settlement to pass.
Sen. Dave Thomas, R-South Weber, said that waiting for a final decision on the lawsuit could have paid off for the state if the state won. But if the state lost another round, it would end up costing a lot more money and time.
"It would be nice to suggest that if we go forward with the litigation, we'll bowl the 10th Circuit (Court of Appeals) over and be able to move forward," Thomas said. "But we're rolling the dice, and we may never see Legacy Parkway built" by not approving the agreement.
During debate in both chambers, lawmakers expressed concerns with the precedent they were setting by approving the settlement. Other concerns centered around the federal courts and how the court system allows for lengthy lawsuits over little details.
Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said the fact that the environmental groups could stop the highway was proof that despite the best intentions, the federal regulations give too much emphasis to wildlife and wilderness.
"What are we guilty of?" he asked. "What didn't we do? We didn't interview the birds."
For some legislators, one potential problem was avoided since Rocky Anderson was not a party to the agreement because all of his arguments against the road were dismissed by the 10th Circuit. In floor debates, multiple speakers said that making an agreement with Anderson would have killed the deal.
Along with the practical concerns, a number of opponents expressed an emotional discomfort with settling a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
"I don't like to do business this way," said Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George. "I don't think we should do business with people, when we're setting policy for the state, that don't represent the people of this state."
At the end of the night, however, even those opposed were still wanting Legacy to be built.
Said Rep. Dave Ure, R-Kamas, a settlement opponent, said, "If this motion is passed, I will be on board to make sure Legacy is built as fast and rapidly as possible. I will become part of the team to get it done. If not, I also promise I will be trying everything possible to get to the courts and get things done and get our congressional people to start having courage Sen. (Orrin) Hatch, Sen. (Bob) Bennett I hope to heavens you're listening over the Internet. Have the courage to change the bloody rules causing problems across the nation. I hope you have the courage to do that."
In a statement released after the vote, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he applauds the Legislature and UDOT. "Legacy Parkway will increase mobility for all citizens of the state and others who travel in northern Utah."Under the settlement, the state will buy approximately 125 acres of property west of 500 South in Bountiful to add to the Legacy Nature Preserve. The state will also provide $2.5 million for a transit study in the corridor.