The Grand County Transportation Special Service District’s (GCTSSD) board voted 4-0 on June 17 to commit $10,000 in mineral lease funding to the study, with chairman Pat McGann abstaining. In a separate 4-1 vote, the board approved a draft interlocal agreement to participate in the study, subject to further reviews of a final proposal; McGann voted against the majority.
While the $10,000 allocation is not a direct burden on taxpayers, Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson acknowledged that it could have been spent on different transportation projects throughout the community.
“It’s not taxpayer funding, but it is lease money that they could have used for other transportation stuff,” he said June 24.
In the past, Jackson has said that no county contributions would be required to fund a study of potential roads or pipeline routes between Grand County and the Uintah Basin. But after thinking it over, he said he believes that the transportation district can strengthen the county’s voice in the process by contributing financially to the proposed study.
“If we put a little bit of money in … we’ve got some direct involvement,” Jackson said. “It’s still pretty miniscule, but it does give us more direct skin in the game here.”
The study is expected to cost about $644,700, and the draft agreement states that Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) would cover $300,000 in study costs over two fiscal years. The Uintah Transportation Special Service District would chip in nearly $220,000, while Uintah and Duchesne counties — along with one of Duchesne County’s special service districts — would contribute smaller amounts.
According to the draft agreement, the bulk of the study would consider whether a potential transportation corridor between Uintah County’s southern border and Interstate 70 in Grand County is viable. It would also look at the corridor’s potential benefits to the region’s energy and tourist industries, as well as the possible impacts that increased development and traffic could have on the surrounding environment.
An earlier version of the draft indicated the study would focus solely on a controversial route through narrow and archeologically rich Sego Canyon near Thompson Springs. But that language was stricken from the draft that the GCTSSD’s board approved, and a majority of board members are happy with the change, according to McGann.
“Most every one of them were in favor of it because it got it away from Sego Canyon,” McGann said.
Jackson said the study, if approved, would still take a look at the Sego Canyon route. But it would also focus on an alternative corridor through Hay Canyon to the east.
“We’re not taking Sego out of the study, but we’re including Hay Canyon, too,” he said.
A closer look at the Hay Canyon corridor would likely examine the possibility of building a cut-off road to Cisco instead of continuing the route to an existing Interstate 70 exit near the Utah-Colorado state line.
Jackson estimates that the spur route could knock about 25 to 30 miles off a one-way trip between Moab and Vernal. It could also hasten the development of rail facilities in the Cisco area, according to McGann.
Although McGann personally supports the concept of building a pipeline along the Hay Canyon route, he has gone on record against the idea of a new Book Cliffs highway.
He fears it could fragment the region’s roadless areas and wilderness study areas, while promoting the development of projects like U.S. Oil Sands’ proposed PR Spring tar sands mine.
“I guess my main concern is that we could open that country up more than we should open it up,” he said.
Like other critics of non-conventional fossil fuel projects, McGann believes it is hard to justify the energy-intensive process required to develop eastern Utah’s tar sands.
“That influences my thinking on these roads,” he said.
Energy development is a driving force behind the feasibility study idea.
A 2013 report from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) found that the Uintah Basin must make significant improvements to its transportation infrastructure in order to keep up with projected industry growth.
According to the report, existing oil and gas pipelines in the Vernal-area basin are already at or near capacity. Traffic on several major routes will grow to the point that it will limit oil and gas production in Uintah and Duchesne counties by 2020, the report said.
While a Book Cliffs highway or pipeline could potentially help meet the regional industry’s shipping needs, some GCTSSD board members believe a new route would also expand opportunities for tourism and outdoor recreation, according to McGann.
“They feel that it will bring other forms of commerce into the county if the road or transportation corridor is built,” he said.
But building either route would be expensive.
Preliminary estimates from a separate and ongoing UDOT study of the Uintah Basin’s transportation needs found that a new route through Hay Canyon would cost $137 million, according to Jackson. That compares to an estimated $307 million price tag for an improved road through Sego Canyon, he said.
At this point, McGann isn’t sure who would shoulder the costs to build and maintain either one of those potential routes.
“It’s not at all clear how these roads [would] be funded or maintained in the future,” McGann said.
That’s one question that the study could answer. Among other things, it would consider how much revenue could be generated if the county imposed friction fees on every barrel of oil that passed through the corridor.
GCTSSD Trustee Robert Knight said that he and other board members ultimately want more information before they vote on a final draft agreement to proceed with the study.
“We would like to see what is going to be presented to the lawyers,” Knight said June 23.
If all seven participating entities sign off on a final draft, Jackson said they must still vote on and then submit a formal request for study proposals. Assuming that the project goes out to bid later this summer, the study is expected to be finished by Dec. 31, according to the draft agreement.