Highway Through The Book Cliffs Is Back On The Table, Despite Protests By Property Owners And Grand County
A proposed highway through the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah is back on the table, after it was suspended last year due to pushback from Grand County and other complications — like a lack of funding. But talk of a federal infrastructure package helped revive the project last month.
A group of rural Utah counties, called the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, first proposed the route through the Book Cliffs in the 1980s. Today, the 35-mile road would connect Vernal to Moab.
Supporters of the highway say it would increase tourism in Uintah County by connecting attractions in northeast Utah, like Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area with the Mighty Five national parks in the south.
It would also run right through Debby Elmgreen’s ranch. She and her husband were shocked to hear the coalition voted to revive the project, after tabling it in December.
“How can this be happening again only seven months later? What's the situation now that's changed?” Elmgreen said, tearing up.
The answer, according to coalition director Mike McKee, is simple: the board voted to table the project because there was no funding available last year to build the road, which the coalition estimates will cost between $200 and $400 million.
But that’s no longer the case, McKee said, because of President Joe Biden’s COVID relief and infrastructure bills.
“There may be some funding out there,” he said. “If there is, let’s put [the road] on the active project list and see where it takes us.”
The coalition voted in May to put the road back on its active projects list, which McKee said will allow it to continue a $3.2 million environmental study funded by the state legislature. Ultimately, the state of Utah would be responsible for building and maintaining the road, according to McKee.
But opposition from Grand County could still keep the project from moving forward. The county commission has voted in the past to oppose the road, which would be located entirely in its jurisdiction.
Commission Chair Mary McGann said the road is a waste of money, since it would only shorten the trip between Moab and Vernal by a few minutes, and it would strain the county’s law enforcement resources.
“They've always said, we're going to get the state to maintain [the road] so it won't be Grand County's tax dollars,” McGann said. “Well, I'm a citizen of Utah. It's my tax dollars. It's our tax dollars. It's everyone's tax dollars that will be taken away, for a road that really isn't serving a lot.”
The road would also destroy elk, antelope and mule deer habitat, according to county commissioner Trisha Hedin. She hunts in the Book Cliffs each year, and she said the road would cut across the winter and summer ranges for big game in the Book Cliffs.
“When it moves down East Canyon, into their winter range in tight canyons, you can imagine what the mortality would be,” she said. “It’s a big concern.”