Grand County’s contracted engineer backed away this week from pursuing the development of a federal application and supporting analysis for a transportation corridor through the Book Cliffs northeast of Moab.
At a special meeting of the Grand County Council on Tuesday, June 27, Dave Dillman of Horrocks Engineers expressed his company’s desire to respond to a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) in developing an application for the proposed roadway. However, Dillman told the Moab Sun News on Monday, July 3, that Horrocks has decided not to pursue the project at this time.
The request was made jointly by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC) and the Uintah Transportation Special Service District.
Before he announced the reversal, Dillman told the council that Horrocks highly values its 25-year association with the county, and that the company doesn't want to do anything that would jeopardize that relationship.
“This is a potential opportunity for our company to have a significant amount of work and it’s hard for us just to ignore it,” Dillman said. “We want to be fully transparent that if we were to pursue it we are not going to be in conflict with the desires of the council in any way.”
Council chair Jaylyn Hawks opened the discussion by saying that she had originally planned not to allow public comment since the focus of the meeting was not to debate the road itself. But since only two people had signed up, Hawks said she would allow them to speak.
“We all know that this is a topic that can elicit lively discussion, and vigorous defense in favor of, and opposed to the project,” Hawks said.
Castle Valley resident Tory Hill thanked Hawks, and said that she hadn’t fully understood the topic from the agenda. Hill said she didn’t have a problem with Horrocks seeking to do an analysis, but she wished to stress that maintenance, if the road were built, would place a hefty burden on Grand County taxpayers.
“I would like the council to put it in the state’s ear that if they really want to push this road, it should be a state road,” Hill said.
Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley echoed Hill’s comments, and compared the proposed stretch that would have to be built in Grand County, to a similar road over Douglas Pass connecting Loma and Rangely, Colorado.
“I’ve heard rumors that the road across the Mancos Shale from Loma to Rangely is the most expensive two lane highway in America to maintain,” Erley said. “Just from a taxpayer’s point of view, this is suicide for the county if we get stuck with the bill to maintain it.”
A north-south route through the Book Cliffs has long been sought to connect the town of Vernal, and the oil fields of the Uintah Basin, with Interstate 70.
In November 2014, pavement on the 45-mile Seep Ridge Road was completed from Vernal to the Uintah/Grand county line. Several alternatives have been studied for continuing the road through Grand County and down the steep escarpment of the Book Cliffs.
Routes studied include descending through either Sego, Hay or East canyons. Each route has a variety of complex land issues as all three cross parcels of state, private, and federal lands. Additionally, wildlife habitat and some Wilderness Study Areas may be impacted. East Canyon, which is located near the Utah-Colorado state line north of Interstate 70, has become the proponents' preferred alternative.
A feasibility study completed in September 2014 estimated construction costs of between $110 million to $200 million for 41 miles of road up through East Canyon. Annual maintenance cost for the twisting road that reaches an altitude of 8,400 feet is estimated at $1.2 million.
SCIC Executive Director Mike McKee said the coalition is looking for a consulting firm to help prepare phase one of the application, which includes a plan of development, and potentially phase two, which includes preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA) or, if needed, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
McKee recently resigned from his fourth term as a Uintah County commissioner to head the coalition. He said that with any project of this scope, there will be a range of alternatives presented, including a “no action” alternative.
“We will have an open and public process,” he said. “There will be transparency.”
McKee told the Moab Sun News that road proponents have no intention of sticking Grand County with a bill and that they are proposing a state road.
“We’ve had discussions with the director of UDOT and have asked them to put this on the state priority list,” McKee said. “As we move forward it will be with this understanding, we’re not going to say to Grand County, 'Here’s additional costs.'”
A history of controversy
The so-called Book Cliffs Highway – and the SCIC – have both been controversial in Grand County and have served as referendums for the council.
In August 2015, the council voted 6-1 to join the coalition, resulting in an election year backlash that installed three anti-coalition candidates, including Chris Baird – who recently resigned from the council – Mary McGann and Hawks.
One of the first orders of business of the new council was to withdraw from the coalition. Sevier County recently stepped in to fill Grand County’s place.
Controversy over the Book Cliffs Highway started in the late 1980s and resulted in voter dissolution of the pro-highway, three-member county commission, resulting in Grand County’s current seven-member council. The current majority is opposed to the highway.
Council member Curtis Wells said it is his opinion that the council shouldn’t be “vindictive” toward an independent contractor.
“This need is going to be filled by somebody,” Wells said. “It wouldn’t be wise to withhold them for political reasons to not be able to get some work for their business.”
McKee said that he hopes the reset button can be pushed with Grand County, and that he’d like to have them on board.
“We want to work closely with Grand County,” McKee said. “Hopefully, some of the things that have been problems in the past have gone away.”
McKee said that the proposed road has regional importance and could serve to promote recreation and tourism between Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks and Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, and on to Yellowstone.
“As commissioner, I worked with our travel board and this is one of those things they have a great interest in,” he said.
Dillman said that there is a lot of support for the project on the state level, but that ownership of the road is ultimately undecided.
“We all agree that Grand County can’t afford it nor should they have to,” Dillman said.
Dillman also acknowledged strong opposition from within Grand County, but he urged the council to stay involved during the EIS phase so it can have input on what goes into the documents.
Hawks said she thinks most people know where she stands on the road, but that she values the work Horrocks has done for the county, and she trusts that they will make a fair assessment of a route through East Canyon.
“So I think the bottom line is, it’s up to you,” Hawks said. “I don’t think we’re going to be vindictive and hold it against you.”