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SALT LAKE CITY — Residents of Salt Lake's west side have often complained about getting the short end of the stick, from historical redlining and current gentrification to disproportionate impacts from projects like the inland port.
Expanding I-15 is just the latest item on a long list injustices, some residents say.
About 60 residents showed up to a community listening session Thursday night to voice their opposition to a project that would expand I-15 from Farmington to Salt Lake City. The project is currently examining two alternative options; both include five lanes in each direction and an express lane.
Of the dozens of comments that were made, not a single one was in support of the project. Instead, residents questioned how expansion would negatively impact their neighborhoods, how to get additional options for the plan and whether expansion would only encourage more vehicle traffic in the long run, contributing to already disproportionate air quality and noise pollution on the west side.
Nigel Swaby, chairman of the Fairpark Community Council, read a council letter during the meeting that stated the council's objection to both of the project's alternatives. Swaby said while the council recognizes the need to update the current I-15 infrastructure, its preference would be to build an underground portion of freeway just before it reaches residential neighborhoods up to the 400 South terminus. Similar proposals are already a reality in cities like Seattle and Boston.
"Let's use this opportunity to tear down one of the big barriers to consolidate the west side and the rest of the city," Swaby said to loud applause. "Combing the Rio Grande plan and underground freeway through residential neighbors would go a long way in restoring equity to our neighborhood. ... There is not a scenario involving the widening of I-15 at the expense of any private property within our neighborhood that we can justify supporting."
Utah Department of Transportation officials said the cost of elevating or burying a freeway is significant, but Sen. Luz Escamilla (who organized the session along with Reps. Sandra Hollins and Angela Romero) told residents that "money is out there" and pointed to tax cuts announced in Gov. Spencer Cox's latest budget release.
"Instead of a tax cut that will give you $75 back at the end of the year, you may want to have that $75 spent on a better transportation system for instance," said Escamilla, who also encouraged residents to participate in the public comment process.
"There's still places where you can intervene. I think as a community that's critical that we understand that process, because this is not over. This study is the beginning, and it may look very different from what the Wasatch Front Regional Council recommended and I think I want to acknowledge that and say we have a voice and we should speak up."
Millcreek resident Noel Koons expressed concern that expanding I-15 is a forgone conclusion. UDOT employees said that was not the case and pointed to case law and National Environmental Policy Act that require agencies to consider potential environmental consequences of such projects and to make such information available to the public for comment before a project is implemented.
"If you're living next to a freeway, it's like living next to an open sewer. What I'm hearing is the plans are to expand the sewer and amplify the sewage," Koons said. "The two alternatives, in my opinion, are unacceptable. They're not wanted."
Daniel Strong, president of the Westside Coalition, also voiced his disapproval of the expansion project: "We want the fewest possible lanes, the fewest possible houses removed, the fewest corruptions of beauty," he said.
The project is part of a transportation system planning process that happens every four years. During that process, regional transportation councils, in this case Wasatch Front Regional Council, make recommendations to UDOT about long-term improvements and changes to the state transportation system. UDOT then studies whether to implement those recommendations, which are funded by the Utah Legislature.
"Our neighborhoods are tired," Romero said. "It's really important for them to hear from our neighborhoods because there have been a lot of promises made to us and then it doesn't happen. That's why we wanted to start these conversations now because we feel like it's really important that we're listening and truly representing the voices of the people who live in our neighborhoods."
UDOT employees stressed that the project is still in early stages. They said they are also looking at other modes of transportation, including electric vehicles and double tracking the FrontRunner, as part of the long-term transportation planning process.
"Yes, we are listening," said Tiffany Pocock, UDOT I-15 project manger. "The fact that we're getting so much feedback is so valuable to us because this investment in the community is generational. We want to make sure that we're doing the right thing now because it's going to stick around for a while."
Residents at the meeting, however, voiced distrust about whether their concerns would be considered during the planning process.
"UDOT mentioned a no-build option, but I know the chances are very slim. Probably it's already been decided that something will be done," one woman said. "Our opinions should matter. We live right here and we are impacted so much from this."
The session, which was held at the Utah State Fairpark, is one of many UDOT has participated in regarding the project, including multiple on the west side. Pocock said the feedback the department has heard from other cities' residents has not been as negative.
"There are lots of needs throughout this corridor. It's a really long 17 miles and different needs throughout the corridor are being discussed," she said. "The department's mission is to improve quality of life through transportation, and that was the foundation of the goals and the needs for the study. The alternatives we've come up with really tried to embrace all users, all modes, and we're excited to hear what the what the feedback is going to be."
UDOT will finish taking public comment on Jan. 13 and is still a year out from releasing a draft of the study. More information about the project and options to submit public comment can be found on UDOT's website.