SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- While the Utah Department of Transportation was attempting to negotiate a settlement with environmental groups that challenged the proposed Legacy Highway, the department also was seeking a congressional end run around the issues, a Salt Lake City newspaper said.
UDOT executive director John Njord said the department was only responding to requests from Utah's congressional delegation.
UDOT started negotiations in January with the Sierra Club and others to try to settle litigation over the disputed 14-mile highway in Davis County. It reached a tentative agreement, which was rejected by the Legislature.
E-mails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request show that at the same time, UDOT's Washington lobbyist was aiding efforts to get a provision added to the transportation bill that would have blocked further Legacy litigation, the newspaper said in a copyright story Thursday.
The provision was pushed by Sen. Orrin Hatch in July but did not make it.
The UDOT lobbyist wrote talking points for Hatch.
"Matt in Senator Hatch's office has requested help in writing some support language for the Legacy request," UDOT lobbyist John Hassell wrote July 14 to UDOT officials. "He is interested in covering the 'If you are negotiating, why do you need the provision?' question."
Hassell wrote a paragraph saying that even with negotiations, there was the possibility of further legal action. "The state needs the assurance that there is an end to the litigation and the proposed legislation is necessary to do so," Hassell wrote.
Roger Borgenicht of Utahns for Better Transportation was part of a Legacy Highway lawsuit that led to a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling halting construction in 2001. He says he is disturbed by the e-mails and adds there is a strong chance the revelation could hamper settlement talks.
"We were working in complete good faith toward a balanced transportation solution," Borgenicht said. "And to learn that UDOT was behind our back trying to shortcut or circumvent what were honest and fair negotiations to reach a positive solution ... shakes my faith in the trust of UDOT and the governor's office."
Marc Heilson of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club said, "We were assured by UDOT and the governor's office that they had nothing to do with the legislative rider. And these e-mails suggest otherwise."
Njord said UDOT backed the congressional effort, because "the Department of Transportation is keenly interested in completing this work. ... We're very, very interested in finishing the product."
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., considered using a similar provision to exempt U.S. Highway 95 from more environmental studies. The disagreement over that highway was settled without legislation.
Before the accord was reached, a staffer for Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, asked Hassell and Njord if the delegation should prepare an amendment that combined the Utah and Nevada projects into one provision. There was no response in the e-mails obtained by The Tribune.
Njord said Wednesday that UDOT had an obligation to look at every avenue.
"We have been straight up with them," Njord said, referring to environmental groups. "We have made tremendous progress with them."
And Njord says the efforts will continue. "We have covered a lot of ground with these guys and we are getting closer."
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)