A truck negotiates a curve on the dusty Seep Ridge Road, formerly referred to as the Book Cliffs Highway.
Bureau of Land Management officials have approved the paving of Seep Ridge Road from Uintah County to the Grand County line, leaving some Grand County Council members concerned about the possible impacts to the county.
There are also potential effects for Carbon County.
Currently a two-lane road surfaced with gravel in the north end and shale in the south, Seep Ridge Road stretches from the eastern edge of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation boundary, approximately nine miles south of Ouray, Utah, to Interstate 70. The BLM decision will enable Uintah County to pave 44.5 miles of the road, beginning at the Uintah/Grand County line and moving north, officials said.
In the late 1980s, an effort on the part of local officials to pave Seep Ridge Road - referred to then as the Book Cliffs Highway - was one of several issues that sparked public backlash and led to the dissolution of the county's then-commission form of government and the creation of the council form of government.
Grand County Council members this week discussed the possible fiscal impact of the project for Grand County. Specifically, council members voiced concern that possible increased traffic coming from the paved portion of the road into the unpaved section in Grand County might require additional funding for road maintenance, law enforcement, and search and rescue/Emergency Medical Services.
Council member Audrey Graham presented a proposed letter to Uintah County officials requesting the development of a memorandum of understanding between the two counties to establish an agreement to safeguard Grand County against future impact.
Bill Jackson, Grand County Road Department supervisor, told council members he has reviewed the BLM's environmental assessment (EA) for the project and believes paving the road in Uintah will likely have minimal impact to Grand County.
"The EA finding is that the impact for Grand County would not be significant," he said. "I think, eventually, there might be some impact, but who knows how much. The road is already impacted by oil and gas vehicles, and I don't see that traffic would increase that much to change that impact."
According to the environmental assessment, the project would improve conditions for oil and gas wells and other energy-related facility operators in the Book Cliffs area and reduce the costs of maintenance and support services for the vehicles and equipment used in those operations. The document also stated that more than 100,000 acres of the Book Cliffs area would be managed to continue to afford visitors and citizens the "same level of solitude and primitive recreation use" as they enjoy now.
The EA does note the possible need for increased law enforcement in the Book Cliffs area to minimize vandalism, risks to human health and safety, and traffic violations that may result from the road being paved.
BLM officials addressed the possible maintenance costs to Grand County, stating that the additional maintenance work could cause Grand County to shift its limited resources to their portion of Seep Ridge Road from more populated areas of the county. The EA also notes concerns that Grand County will receive pressure from the public to pave its portion of the road connecting with Interstate 70. That idea was revived in 2007 but dismissed because it was estimated to cost $6 million per mile.
Jackson said that neither he nor other road department workers feel any pressure to change the current conditions of Grand's portion of the road.
"I don't think there's much to do now," he said. "It's too early to really tell what the impact could be."
Council member Jim Nyland agreed with Jackson, saying that he wants to avoid having a knee-jerk reaction to the project.
"I don't want to get into the habit of sending letters to other counties about what they are doing in their own jurisdictions," he said.
Graham said she still believes an agreement with Uintah County would give Grand County options concerning any potential financial impact, but she agreed with the council to take no action at this time.
The paving of the road, if that action eventually leads to Grand County improving and even paving its section of the roadway to I-70, could be of concern to Carbon and Emery County residents as well. If fully paved from U.S. 40 to the freeway Seep Ridge Road could cut the travel route to the Uintah Basin from the interstate from and through both counties. Westbound I-70 traffice could cut directly north on that route toward Vernal, Roosevelt and into Wyoming without passing through either Green River, Wellington, Price or Helper. Eastbound traffic could still be seen to stop in Green River, but would miss coming through the towns in western Emery County as well as Price and Helper to head in the same direction.
While it has not been estimated how much traffic (and consequently the economic impact results) that passes through the two county area goes on to the Uintah Basin, the loss in revenues could be considerable.
(Richard Shaw contributed to this article).