The Book Cliffs “enhanced transportation corridor” project has a new name – or two.
The Six County Infrastructure Coalition is moving forward with plans to further study the feasibility of building a road that is alternately called the Highway 88 Extension Project and the Seep Ridge Road Extension Project.
But make no mistake, Grand County Council member Chris Baird said, the project is still the same controversial proposal that has divided Moab-area residents for decades.
“This is the Book Cliffs Highway,” Baird said. “They just keep coming up with different names for it.”
Uintah County Commissioner and coalition member Mike McKee said he’s asking the coalition to consider a request for state legislative funding to get started on an environmental impact study of the project. The coalition is scheduled to consider his request at its next meeting in Duchesne on Friday, Jan. 8.
“The legislature is going to convene shortly, and if we want to be able to receive any funding during the current legislative session, we need to get that before them,” McKee said.
To be clear, the request for funding does not commit the coalition to building the road, which could come with a hefty price tag. Past studies have estimated that the least-expensive proposal could cost anywhere from $112.6 million to $198.7 million to build.
According to McKee, the study would examine the feasibility of various options, from a no-action alternative, to potential routes through Hay and East canyons in Grand County’s Book Cliffs northeast of Moab.
“This begins the dialogue and the discussion, I think,” McKee said. “Really, the idea of what’s on the agenda is, is there any interest among the six-county organization because of the regional importance of that corridor?”
Baird said he sees the proposal as a sign that the coalition is interested in building the road.
“If you’re going to put down a big chunk of money for an environmental impact statement, that pretty much means that you’re going to go for it,” Baird said. “An EIS is pretty much the first step in the process.”
McKee said that the Grand County Transportation Special Service District’s board was kept in the loop during the last study process. However, word of the coalition’s agenda item came as a surprise to Baird and two other county council members.
In a brief email to the Moab Sun News, Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said he had no idea what the coalition’s agenda item addresses. Baird, meanwhile, said that as far as he knows, no one from the coalition informed Grand County officials about their plans.
“Obviously, the infrastructure coalition doesn’t have much of an inclination in communicating with Grand County about this,” Baird said.
The pavement on Seep Ridge Road currently ends near the Grand and Uintah County lines. The fact that the coalition is exploring the possibility of extending it south through Grand County is troubling to Baird, given past clashes over concerns that it would facilitate the development of oil shale and oil sands projects in the rugged Book Cliffs.
“Things could get pretty ugly again,” he said.
If the coalition approves McKee’s proposal and the legislature allocates funding for the study, McKee said there will still be other opportunities for local elected officials and citizens to become involved in the process.
“What I would hope would happen is that there would be a public meeting in relation to the study and all of the related questions,” he said.
Past transportation studies have identified a need for more direct access between Interstate 70 and the Uintah Basin around Vernal, which is currently connected to much of Utah via a single link along U.S. Highways 191 and 6. That route navigates numerous mountain passes and can become a “fragile connection” to the outside world beyond the basin during severe weather events, one study found.
As an alternative, a new route through East Canyon would run for 41 miles, generally following existing – but unpaved – Grand County roads to Interstate 70 near Cisco, which is located about halfway between Moab and Grand Junction, Colorado.
A study on the coalition’s revamped website at scic-utah.org says it’s important to note that an East Canyon corridor would offer the most direct route between the Uintah Basin’s oil and gas fields and Interstate 70.
The study projected that the new route could generate more than $900 million in additional economic output over a 30-year period, as well as 350 new and permanent jobs. According to the study, the extension could ease congestion and traffic bottlenecks in the basin, handling about 1,500 vehicles per day and reducing the number of trips on other roads by 32,000 miles per day. If drivers had the option of traveling along the East Canyon route, the study projected that they could save $172 million in transportation costs over a 30-year period.
However, the route could have moderate to substantial impacts on the surrounding environment. It would cross 74 drainages, and researchers found that it could have moderate impacts on protected wildlife species, wetlands and big game species, as well as big game corridors. Archaeological and paleontological resources along the route would be heavily impacted, according to a study on the coalition’s website.
Grand County Council member Mary McGann said it’s “mind-boggling” to learn that the coalition is still considering the project.
“To me, it does not make any sense at all to be building that road at this point,” McGann said. “There is no money in fossil fuels right now, and it doesn’t look like the industry is coming back any time soon.”
McGann said she believes that coalition members should turn their attention to more pressing concerns in the Uintah Basin, following the year-long plunge in oil prices and continued drop in economic activity there.
“Look at what poor Vernal is going through and what they need,” McGann said. “Think of all the things they could use to help them, and here they are, still talking about this road.”
McKee said his proposal acknowledges the Vernal area’s current economic realities.
“As a Uintah County commissioner, one of the things we have seen here in Uintah County is a fairly dramatic drop-off in some of our extractive industries,” he said.
A new paved route through the Book Cliffs would connect Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks to Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, as well as Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in Wyoming, bringing more visitors to the basin, he said.
“We have always wanted to diversify and recognize the value of a recreation economy, and we want to work toward that,” McKee said.
Proposed route would connect Uintah Basin to I-70 near Cisco
The legislature is going to convene shortly, and if we want to be able to receive any funding during the current legislative session, we need to get that before them.