Coalition takes first steps toward building road through Book Cliffs
by Molly Marcello
The Times-Independent
Jul 06, 2017 | 3137 views | 0 0 comments | 79 79 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A rough dirt road winds through the Grand County side of the Book Cliffs. Members of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition hope to develop a paved road or utility corridor connecting Uintah County to Grand, despite some public and Grand County Council opposition for the proposal. 						               Courtesy photo
A rough dirt road winds through the Grand County side of the Book Cliffs. Members of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition hope to develop a paved road or utility corridor connecting Uintah County to Grand, despite some public and Grand County Council opposition for the proposal. Courtesy photo
Grand County has told its county engineer of record, Horrocks Engineers, Inc., that there will be no political conflict if the firm seeks a contract with the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC) for work related to a potential road/utility corridor through the Book Cliffs. The SCIC recently released a request for qualifications asking for professional pre-development plans for a 41-mile route through East Canyon in the Book Cliffs. The project would be located entirely within Grand County.

County-contracted engineer Dave Dillman discussed the matter with the council June 27, describing the SCIC contract as an opportunity for his company to reap a “significant amount of work.”

Dillman said Horrocks Engineers simply wants to provide engineering services for the project, but does not want to implicate Grand County politically, alluding to previous councils’ stated opposition to any transportation corridor through the Book Cliffs.

“There’s a lot of political ramifications and opinions on this road, on that project,” Dillman said. “We just want to be fully transparent, that if we are to pursue it, we are not in conflict with the desires of the council in any way.”

On July 6, Dillman told The Times-Independent that Horrocks Engineers ultimately decided not to submit the RFQ for the first phase of the project.

“We are not going to pursue the RFQ at this point in time,” Dillman said. “The coalition is moving forward on the project regardless. ... We just wanted to be fully transparent with the county that if we decided to pursue it that nobody had a conflict.”

He said there were “multiple reasons” for the company’s decision, although he declined to discuss them. However, Dillman said Horrocks has not ruled out seeking a contract for future work on the project.

“We're not going to pursue that work at this time,” he said, adding that “there's a possibility that we may in the future.”

SCIC membership includes Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, San Juan, Sevier and Uintah counties. Grand County was invited to join the coalition in 2014, and the council members at that time voted 6-1 in favor. But in January 2015, newly elected council members voted 5-2 to opt out of the group, citing concerns about the language of the SCIC agreement. Some council members and citizens also voiced concerns that the SCIC would push for a road or utility corridor in the Book Cliffs even if Grand County did not want it.

The SCIC has been collaborating on “sustainable infrastructure projects” in the state and has listed the road/utility corridor in Grand County as a “priority project.”

Last year, the coalition received $1 million in funding — split between the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board and Uintah County’s Transportation Special Service District — for “phase one” of the project.

Phase one includes conceptual design and alignment data for a 41-mile corridor connecting Seep Ridge Road at the southern end of Uintah County through East Canyon in Grand County to Interstate 70.

According to a 2016 economic study funded by several counties and the state, the road/utility corridor could facilitate the extraction of an estimated 1.1 million barrels of oil by 2040, with Uintah County seeing $85 million in energy-related production and taxable sales.

“The improved corridor will help alleviate regional transportation capacity constraints and thereby contribute to the expansion of the oil and gas industry,” the SCIC states on its website.

When the project received phase one funding last year, Grand County’s previous council sent a letter notifying the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the SCIC of its opposition to the development of any transportation corridor through the Book Cliffs. That letter requested that the BLM not consider any land transfers for the project’s development.

Setting aside that issue on June 27, the council essentially gave the go-ahead to Dillman and Horrocks Engineers to respond to the phase one RFQ. Council members said there will be no conflict — or hard feelings — if the company is awarded the SCIC contract.

“I think most people know where I stand on the road issue,” said Grand County Council chairwoman Jaylyn Hawks, who voted to send the opposition letter in 2016. “But I do respect the work Dave Dillman and his associates have given in Grand County and I would trust he would give fair assessment if he were selected.”

Council member Curtis Wells said the council should not act “vindictively” towards an independent contractor.

“In my own opinion, it wouldn’t be wise to withhold them for political reasons to not be able to get some work for their business,” he said.

The June 27 conversation over the project did remind the council — and some members of the public — that other regional and state entities may be lending significant support to a project that has met mixed reviews in Grand County.

SCIC Executive Director Mike McKee told The Times-Independent that he feels the project already has support in the state Legislature.

When the SCIC is ready to move into “phase two” of the project, which would involve a $3 million to $4 million environmental assessment or impact study under NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] guidelines, the coalition will likely seek funding at the legislative level, McKee said.

“It’s not a for sure deal, but we have good reason to believe that this [project] has got some legs,” he said. “There’s a good chance of getting additional funding from the Legislature.”

With expected state-level support, Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley cautioned the Grand County Council about the corridor’s development. The 2016 economic study estimated that a route through East Canyon would cost approximately $157 million to build, and Erley said maintenance costs for such a road could potentially put Grand County at severe financial risk.

“Just from a simple taxpayers point of view, it is suicide for this county if we get stuck with that bill to maintain it,” Erley said. “Be pragmatic; get beyond the philosophy of which side you’re on and let’s get an honest answer [about the cost].”

But McKee said it is absolutely not the intention of the coalition to stick Grand County with those costs.

“If this project moves forward, it is not with the proposition that Grand or Uintah County gets stuck with paying for the road — that’s not the plan,” McKee said. “Moving forward, this would need to be a state highway, and it would need to be funded in that way.”

During the June 27 meeting, Dillman “strongly recommended” that the county keep abreast of the project, noting that the opportunity for council members to voice their concerns will come during the phase two NEPA process.

As the SCIC moves forward on the road/utility corridor, McKee said the group is “100 percent committed” to working with Grand County.

“At some point, there’s going to be a full public process and as many meetings in Grand County as needed so that questions and issues can be discussed and resolved,” McKee said. “... It’s our intent to work very closely with Grand County.”

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