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WOODS CROSS — Utah is already home to the "Golden Spoke," a series of multi-use trails that connect communities throughout the Wasatch Front. There are many other similar trail systems scattered across the state, as well.
But the Golden Spoke may one day become much, much larger.
Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled plans for the state to construct a network of trails in Utah similar to the interstate system in the future, except all the trails would be within the state and could connect communities across the state without cars. The concept is still in its earliest stages, but it's a goal he says Utah will pursue over the next several years.
"At some point in the future, we'll be able to get from anywhere in Utah to anywhere else without having to get onto a roadway to accomplish that and to do so safely in a way that brings people together," he said, standing near the Legacy Parkway Trail on a chilly Friday morning. "The only reason we can dream about doing this is because we have mayors and city councilmembers and counties that have already been doing this. We have some of the best trail systems anywhere in the world and now we get to put in those pieces to kind of connect them all together."
Carlos Braceras, executive director at the Utah Department of Transportation, explained that the popularity of all the local trails over the past few decades sparked the desire to extend those trails or build more of them. UDOT pieced together the intrastate proposal after the governor challenged the agency to find a "bold" solution to future transportation and recreation challenges in the state.
It's a way to connect communities across the state for people who either choose not to drive or can't for any reason, he said. It also can serve a key recreation opportunity, especially with the recent rise of e-bikes. Ultimately, those behind the plan say it has the potential to boost healthier and happier communities much as the existing trails have provided.
"Just as the interstate connected our cities and our states together and really made this country what it is today from an economic, quality of life perspective, where you can go wherever you wanted to go whenever you wanted to go, I believe a statewide trail system will do the same for the state of Utah — and will prove a legacy for all citizens and visitors to the state of Utah for so many years," Braceras said.
However, since the idea is still in its earliest stages, there aren't any lines drawn on where routes will go and what communities will be connected. It's unclear when the project will begin or where it will start, though Cox said it will likely begin with trails that already exist.
He added that it will be important to design the trails in a way that makes them equitable for everyone, regardless of income or ability.
Another challenge is the safety of getting Utah residents to and from the trails through the streets in every community. Braceras said UDOT is exploring a handful of ideas, like reducing speeds on some roadways or building grade separations so trail users don't have to cross some of the largest roads.
The project will also need plenty of funding from the Utah Legislature. UDOT officials say they plan to coordinate with the Legislature as the agency moves forward with each and every plan.
"This is not a cheap project. This is long term — we're going to work toward this," Braceras said. "We may not be done in our lifetimes because, I believe, as we start making these connections, it's going to grow."
That said, Cox views trails as one of the items that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on.
And while it may seem like a tall order, the governor adds it's an idea he — and many other state officials — are committed to in the long run.
"We are going after this in a big way. We're very serious about this," he said. "It's probably not a moonshot because we're not building rockets but it is a huge undertaking and a heavy lift. But we're very serious about moving this forward."