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Uintah/I-70 road connection

Sun Advocate publisher

During the legislative tour of energy related fields in eastern Utah on Memorial Day week, attending state legislators learned a lot of new things about oil and gas. They also learned about transportation problems.

The reserves of oil in the area that need to be transported by truck is enormous. And the roads to support not only the transportation of the product itself, but the equipment and services that go with it, are almost mind boggling.

At a meeting with county representatives State Senators Kevin Van Tassell of Vernal, David Hinkins of Orangeville, Margaret Dayton of Orem, Karen Mayne of Salt Lake, Ross Romero of Salt Lake and Representatives Kraig Howell of Heber and Christine Watkins of Price, heard about a project to extend a road from the Uintah County area to I-70 near Crescent Junction.

Oil from the Uintah Basin is shipped out by truck on Utah Highway 40 to Salt Lake refineries. However, other markets exist for the expanding operations in the area and to transport oil to those areas would require a more extensive road connection to the closest rail lines.

When oil shale development takes place in a commercial way in Uintah County, much of the activity will be south of Vernal where deposits are large and the transport of oil that comes from that shale needs to find a better way to flow to market.

Seep Ridge Road as SR-88 breaks off of Highway 40 about 14 miles west of Vernal. Highway 88 extends through Ouray and then becomes Watson Road just south of the town which splits one going east and the other west. A few miles on the south branch Seep Ridge Road begins. This road runs through the south end of Uintah County into Grand County, all the while joining up with various splits and other roads and eventually comes out on I-70 near where Highway 128 breaks away toward Cisco. But more importantly for oil transport, the road crosses rail lines which could put future production on steel rails toward the Gulf states and toward the California coast.

Presently the road is not capable of handling heavy industrial traffic on a regular basis, and some parts are fit only for SUV or four wheel drive pickup traffic, particularly where it breaks through the Book Cliffs. But in the future, with development and road funding it could be developed into a major link between the Vernal area and the rest of the country.

The Uintah County Transportation Special Service District has been working on improving the road to their county line. Recently an extra nine miles of road was improved and paved south of Ouray with the development of more miles in mind. Engineers estimate that to complete the 57 miles that are still just gravel, dirt and four wheel drive road to connect to the interstate will cost about $100 million.

The district has already put together $24 million in grants and loans to work on the road. As for an environmental assessment on the project, most of which crosses Bureau of Land Management land, the comment period ended on May 28 and at the time of the legislators meeting, Troy Ostler, the engineer on the project for the UTSSD, said during the meeting that no comments had been received at that time.

According to the BLM the EA describes the potential impacts of Uintah County's proposal to pave and realign approximately 44.5 miles of the existing Seep Ridge Road.

But there are some strong opponents to such a road ever being completed. Environmentalists dislike the idea of a paved road being built through an area that they would like to have eventually deemed wilderness. Some claim that the area east of the Green River is the last large section of wilderness left in the lower United States. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in particular sent out an information piece on the project not long before the EA comment date was to end and asked members and others to respond to the BLM by asking the agency to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement. In addition they asked those who were concerned to "consider the impacts of such a highway to important resources like big game" and "to fully consider the cumulative impacts from the increased traffic and development that will occur in the Book Cliffs as an inevitable result of approving" the project.

Another obstacle to completing the road all the way to I-70 is that nearly 20 miles (depending on where the road would link up with the interstate) of the completion would have to be done in Grand County, which hasn't showed particular interest in participating in the project.

About 20 years ago the two counties nearly had an agreement at the time to complete such a road, but there was a move by environmental groups and others in Grand County that basically ended that by electing new county council members who opposed the idea. Whether a similar proposal today would fly is problematic. There also was a reported funding problem for Grand County in that all their mineral lease money at the time would have gone to a highway that many saw as not benefiting the county very much.

For Carbon County residents such a road being built may also have some economic impacts. Traffic that flows through the local area now heading to Duchesne and Uintah Counties could be curtailed by the proposed route. This decrease could affect some businesses such as restaurants and fuel stops, and even lodging in some cases.

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