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Leavitt releases Legacy funds

The money is in the bank — $451 million worth — and barring any setbacks in the courts, ground will be broken for the Legacy Parkway as soon as spring weather allows.

Many of the northern Utah officials and others who gathered Friday in the Utah Department of Transportation maintenance building in Centerville to watch Gov. Mike Leavitt ink the funds certificate said they are eager.

"I can't wait to dig that first shovelful of dirt," said Rep. Marda Dilree, R-Farmington. She'll have lots of competition for the honor as the host of notables present for the signing indicated.

"We've waited a long time for today," said Leavitt, whose signature released money appropriated by the 2001 Legislature.

Rep. Joe Murray, R-Ogden, particularly cheered the second act of the ceremony — the accompanying signing of a certificate that provides $24.5 million for preservation of a rail corridor that ultimately may see commuter train service from Salt Lake to Brigham City.

"Acquisition of rights of way was the sink-or-swim factor" for the proposed rail line, Murray said. Without the prospects of a commuter line, voters in Weber County likely would not have supported a quarter-of-a-cent hike in sales taxes. Balloting in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties last November ensured new money for transportation needs in the region.

Critics of Legacy Parkway have suggested that the rail should come first in the effort to relieve clogged freeways in Davis County, but Leavitt said that thinking is illogical.

"It's not a choice of one or the other; we have to do both," he said, noting that the rail planning is far behind Legacy Parkway and the need is immediate. Already I-15 has been widened through the south Davis area in an attempt to keep pace with the demand, he said.

However, while the applause was still echoing in the Centerville maintenance building, critics concerned about the potential environmental effects of the parkway suggested that proponents should not get too eager. They still hope to bar the construction through the courts.

No hearing date has been set for two lawsuits filed against the project. Those suits have been combined into one federal court complaint charging that the Parkway violates both the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Lawson LeGate, the Sierra Club's senior southwest regional representative, warns the state should not become attached to its plans to begin construction in the spring.

"It's just very difficult to see how they are going to meet that schedule," LeGate said. "There are some very serious legal problems that the project has."

Friday, Leavitt brushed off the court challenges. "We anticipated lawsuits and prepared with that in mind. We wouldn't have come this far if we didn't think we will prevail."

But while Leavitt and UDOT executive director Tom Warne are expressing confidence the court battle will be won, LeGate said the Sierra Club — one of the organizations that filed suit — has learned some UDOT officials "are actually quite worried about it."

LeGate said the Sierra Club wants to stop the road project and allow time to see if public transit alternatives — like commuter rail, expanded bus service and even light rail — could solve some congestion problems and eliminate the need for the Parkway.

"We really want them to give transit the chance," LeGate said, noting the recent approval in Davis County of a sales-tax increase for transit. "While there are certainly a lot of folks in Davis County who want the freeway built, it is gratifying to see how supportive folks up there are for mass transit as well."

Leavitt once again countered claims that the Legacy road will irreparably damage the environment along the 14-mile Davis portion of the corridor, including valuable wetlands, or contribute to sprawl and bad air.

"It's called a 'parkway' for a reason," he said, with the emphasis on "park." Bicycle and pedestrian paths and picnic areas will give residents access to views along the east shore of the Great Salt Lake in ways that haven't been possible to date, he said.

Centerville Mayor Frank W. Hirschi called it "a great day," even though the choice for the highway's alignment means some of Centerville's west-side businesses will be adversely affected.

"We need Legacy," he said philosophically. "If Centerville has to be the sacrificial lamb, so be it."