As the Utah Department of Transportation prepares its first draft of the environmental impact statement for its Interstate 15 expansion, community members and organizers are fighting to have their voices heard.

UDOT’s $1.6 billion project to widen I-15 from Farmington to Salt Lake City has some residents and local business owners concerned about the potential impact.

UDOT announced its plans to widen I-15 in November. There was a public comment period from November 2022 through January 2023. Several residents, specifically those west of I-15, voiced their concerns about the potential expansion. 

In May, an alternatives development and screenings report was released with additional information about what the expansion could look like.

According to the report, up to 57 residences and 33 businesses could be impacted with the current options. Four parks and two school playing fields in Woods Cross could also be affected if the expansion goes through. 

Tiffany Pocock, project manager for UDOT, said as of now, homes in Salt Lake City wouldn’t be taken by the expansion.

“I want to put the caveat that that could change because we have additional analysis to do between now and the fall,” she said. 

This report is only a step in the process and impact analysis is still being conducted. More information will be released in the fall, according to Pocock. 

“So right now everything is preliminary. We want to share information and be transparent as we move through the process,” she said. 

With the updated information from Pocock, 24 of the potentially impacted homes would be in the Salt Lake City area. That leaves up to 33 other homes in areas like Bountiful, Centerville and Farmington vulnerable to the expansion.

UDOT is now in the process of drafting an EIS in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The draft EIS will be available this fall, after which UDOT will hold another 45-day public comment period. 

Even if a business or home doesn’t have to be relocated, some people would still experience impacts from the expansion such as noise pollution, air quality concerns and economic challenges. 

David Galvan, owner of Mestizo Coffeehouse in Salt Lake, is worried about how the I-15 expansion could affect economic patterns.

He said while I-15 expansion might not force him or people in his neighborhood to relocate, there will still be a disruption felt by the community. 

“The bottom line is that disruption is going to affect these jobs economically,” he said. 

David Galvan, owner of Mestizo Coffeehouse, greets customer Bryce Draper in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 23, 2023. Galvan is worried his business will be impacted by a potential expansion of I-15 in the area. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Galvan said the construction will change people’s patterns as it has in the past. 

“There’ll be detours on the track. It will change people’s travel,” he said. “My customers (will say,) ‘Oh, I can’t get there. I’m gonna get my coffee from Blue Copper,’ or wherever they happen to be.”

Organizations like the Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah and NeighborWorks Salt Lake are working to inform people of what’s going on and of the potential impacts. 

Jasmine Walton, director of community initiatives and marketing for NeighborWorks Salt Lake, said residents are concerned about additional traffic, but the issue of air quality is something people are really worried about. 

“I think … the biggest impact is the air quality, because our air quality is already bad and thinking about having even more cars on the freeway contributing to that — I think a lot of people are nervous about that,” she said. 

Dr. Caitlin Cahill, an adjunct professor at the University of Utah in the City and Metropolitan Planning Department, said city planners have caused harm for communities like the west side in the past through redlining practices.

Cottage Park residences on 800 West in Salt Lake City are pictured on Friday, June 16, 2023. The Utah Department of Transportation has proposed an expansion of I-15 from Salt Lake City to Farmington. Some residents on the west side of the city are worried they could lose their homes under the proposed highway expansion. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“When I-15 was first built, it was part of segregating the west and the east side, and that came out of the redlining ... the west side that was redlined was devalued. ... And therefore, the west side is the most polluted area in the Salt Lake Valley,” she said.

Melanie Hall, policy director of HEAL Utah, said while she understands UDOT has to keep up with population growth and address aging infrastructure, she would like to see them do more than just expand roads. She said alternatives such as funding public transportation, making designated lanes for buses on I-15 and creating more accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists should be something UDOT looks into. 

“I think these are the kinds of answers that are there at their disposal that we just need to invest in,” she said. “$1.6 billion is a lot of money — why can’t we put that into our public transportation system to just make it work for everybody?”

Cahill taught a workshop at the U this summer called “Planning for People, not Highways,” within the school’s City and Metropolitan Planning Department.

Cahill said the class was developed in collaboration with organizations like HEAL Utah, NeighborWorks Salt Lake, Sweet Streets, the River District Business Alliance and others to engage the community and students through public meetings and projects.

“I think the work that we were doing was about really trying to think about how to raise consciousness about the impact of the expansion of I-15 on the west side community and trying to really work with the community to center their voices,” she said. 

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It’s a different way of thinking about these issues through community engagement, according to Cahill. 

“I think in general as planners, as community organizers, those who are most affected by the decisions should be involved in the process, not just being informed that it’s happening,” she said. “But their concerns, their questions, their needs — need to be amplified, centered, foregrounded and it’s a different way of thinking about planning.” 

The main priority for these organizations is to inform the public about the expansion. Hall said it seems like people forget that roads are public spaces.

“We kind of get to determine how (roads are) used, what they’re used for, and so it’s another reason why I want more individuals being activated in this area, because I think our state legislature, our elected officials need to hear what we want from roads,” she said. “And when we create systems that create more cars … I think we forget to think about, why are we prioritizing our cars over people?”

Bryce Draper and Noel Littlefield sit in Mestizo Coffeehouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 23, 2023. The business could be impacted by a potential expansion of I-15 in the area. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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