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Bob Bernick Jr.: Will Utah leaders learn anything from Legacy?

Word came this week that state officials and environmental groups have reached a tentative agreement on the Legacy Parkway.

And legal battles over the highway have only cost taxpayers $220 million.

There are a few things that Utah conservatives love to hate.

Tops on the list are Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson and environmentalists who oppose driving anything over any land or road.

Legacy Parkway brought the two great hates together in a perfect storm.

I got a kick out of watching the press conference Wednesday where the two groups signed a Legacy Parkway agreement. You never saw more strained smiles.

No one was saying at the gathering that this was one of the great screw-ups of recent political decisionmaking.

It ranks right up there with the passage in the early 1980s of the Cable TV Decency Act — where over the veto of then-Gov. Scott M. Matheson Utah lawmakers tried to regulate/outlaw R-rated movies on cable TV.

Except the cable foul-up cost taxpayers only $1 million.

The Legacy mess cost us more than $200 million.

And in typical Utah fashion, there has not been, and probably will not be, any political reckoning on Legacy.

In fact, there are still legislative holdouts who are saying the state shouldn't settle the Legacy suit at all, that we should just plod along in the courts, finish our court-ordered environmental impact statements and fight any new lawsuits as they come.

Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.

But that action would likely cost the state another $100 million in construction delays, says Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert.

What happened here?

Flush from a true success story in rebuilding I-15 in Salt Lake County in a fast-track mode — so quickly accomplished that it saved taxpayers tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars — former Gov. Mike Leavitt and his state transportation officials thought Legacy could be done at an even faster pace.

Yes, there were red flags on Legacy. And Leavitt and UDOT tried to put a dress on the environmental pig by making Legacy a "parkway" with some wetlands and green space. But when environmental groups wouldn't bite on that, leaders decided not to work out agreements then.

"We'll build it and then let them try to stop it," was the mentality.

Unfortunately, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver had other ideas.

Contractors were throwing dirt in west Davis County when they were slapped with a cease and desist order. Idle equipment and men cost money. And soon the state was having to pay off contractors who couldn't work.

A partial dirt road has sat there for years as UDOT went back to writing expanded EIS studies.

But did Leavitt or legislators get into any political trouble over this?


There wasn't even much finger-pointing among politicians — just a damning of those who sued.

The minority Democrats can claim they never favored Legacy anyway; that the Republicans just rolled over them.

The Republicans just point to Anderson and the environmentalists and smile — for from the GOP point of view you can't demonize these people enough.

If Anderson and some Sierra Club members had accidentally stumbled into the state or county GOP conventions held the past several years they may have been lynched — with the GOP House and Senate then passing resolutions of commendation for the perpetrators.

No. You don't see many hard-core GOP delegates criticizing their state officials for terribly misreading the road-building tea leaves and costing citizens $200 million.

The blame all falls on those who dare to sue over a controversial road-building project.

Our system of government is built on checks and balances.

In a more politically balanced state, perhaps larger groups of Democrats in the state House or even a Democratic governor may have slowed down a road-building juggernaut. Or perhaps even moderate GOP lawmakers could have stepped forward. But not here.

Instead, it took the courts — at a cost of $200 million.

Negotiation is always better than litigation.

We'll see if Utah state leaders learned anything from Legacy; for history says that voters will not teach any lessons in future elections.

Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at