OPINION — In 2015, I moved to St. George, Utah after living more than 50 years as an Iowa flatlander. My first impressions of the unique and staggering beauty of Southern Utah’s red rock country, so profoundly different from the Midwest prairies of my home state, were like bolts of lightning straight to the cerebral cortex. The landscape here is so jaw-droppingly magnificent that it nearly defies description. To live surrounded by such natural splendor is a rare and wonderful privilege. Conversely, to witness such magnificence needlessly threatened by human encroachment is a profound and grievous transgression.
Inexplicably, the Bureau of Land Management has recently determined that the proposed Northern Corridor Highway, which would cut through four miles of pristine desert landscape that lies within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is the “preferred” alternative to addressing anticipated increased traffic flow, despite the existence of other demonstrably suitable solutions.
Of course, transportation issues are always an integral aspect of urban expansion. It is completely understandable that St. George and the surrounding areas must be prepared for a continued influx of new residents who are drawn to these exquisite surroundings. But to sacrifice what makes this hallowed place special in the name of facilitating community growth that could be accommodated some other way is, simply put, a tragedy.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement (“FEIS”) released last month by the federal government, identifies at least two alternate plans that would meet transportation needs without the devastating ecological consequences.
First, the existing Red Hills Parkway, which currently provides a lightly used east-west artery in the exact same area as the proposed Northern Corridor Highway, but which lies outside of the Reserve, could be improved and upgraded to allow for greater traffic volume. Second, St. George Boulevard and 100 South, which are also existing east-west routes, could be similarly modified. According to the FEIS, both of these alternatives are feasible and would, in fact, offer slightly better traffic performance than the BLM’s environmentally disastrous “preferred” route.
Numerous studies have proven the existence of “induced demand”, the concept that building more highways actually creates more traffic. In a paper published by the Transportation Research Record, author Ronald Milam and his research team reviewed studies documenting this effect and found that for every one percent increase in highway capacity, traffic increases 0.29 to 1.1 percent in an approximately five-year time period.
Despite the evidence from this study and others, transportation planning practice does not fully or routinely take this phenomenon into account, which leads to overestimation in many cases of the traffic congestion capabilities of constructing additional highways.
I have witnessed firsthand the effects of overreach into natural spaces. In Iowa, unchecked urbanization has nearly wiped out the vast tallgrass prairies, which are native to that part of the country and are responsible for its deep, fertile soil – the basis for the state’s economy. Of the 30 million acres of prairie that covered Iowa 150 years ago, less than one-tenth of one percent remain. Restoration and reconstruction efforts are underway, but it is a formidable uphill battle that can never be won. Once vast biological ecosystems such as these are lost, they are simply gone forever.
Planning for the preservation and future of our irreplaceable natural public spaces is no less important than planning for the orderly development of our metropolitan public spaces. If we can agree that traffic management and conservation do not need to be mutually exclusive and that each is a worthy endeavor, why not pursue a solution in this instance that takes both goals into account? Especially in light of the fact that the BLM’s “preferred” solution not only fails to adequately resolve the transportation issue, but prioritizes the former at the expense of the latter.
We are fully capable of addressing this issue in a manner that allows both interests to co-exist peacefully. It is not necessary or desirable to sacrifice protected desert habitat in order to construct a highway that arguably will do little to ease projected traffic congestion. Even if the powers that be decide – as it appears that they have – that more vehicle lanes are will ultimately be the designated answer, viable alternatives that respect our treasured red rock surroundings are possible, plausible and should be embraced.
MELINDA KAYE, La Quinta, California.
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