ST. GEORGE – A bill presented by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, supporting the creation of the contested “northern corridor” passed out of committee Wednesday and now advances to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Officially titled the “Washington County, Utah, Public Lands Management Implementation Act,” the bill designates right-of-way for a northern transportation route and eased utility access through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
“This is a big win for my constituents in Washington County,” Stewart said in a statement Wednesday after the bill passed out of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “This bill will finally allow for further transportation development to accommodate growth in one of the fastest growing areas in the nation.”
County and municipal officials have long argued that the northern corridor is needed to help ease severe congestion projected to come with increasing growth over the coming decades. Gov. Gary Herbert’s Office has estimated Washington County will have a population of nearly 235,000 by 2040.
“Right now our traffic’s not too bad, but as the area grows, traffic along St. George Boulevard and the northern part of Bluff Street, there will be so much traffic it will be gridlocked,” Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said Thursday.
Renstrom and other officials maintain that the promise of a northern transportation route that would connect between Interstate 15 and state Route 18 was promised to the county in the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009.
The route proposed in Stewart’s bill would start at the Washington Parkway/Exit 13 interchange of I-15 and run west where it would connect with Red Hills Parkway that further connects to SR-18.
However, when the Bureau of Land Management released its draft resource management plans for the Beaver Dam and Red Cliffs national conservation areas in late 2015, they didn’t exactly allow for the possibility of the northern corridor.
The BLM plans “created an environment that made that impossible,” Renstrom said.
County officials and other involved parties have been meeting with the BLM on a regular basis to discuss the northern corridor and other areas of concern, Renstrom said. He added the county and BLM nonetheless have a good relationship and are working together to try and solve the issues at hand.
Conservation groups, such as Conserve Southwest Utah and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, have objected to the concept of the northern corridor. A concern is that bisecting the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve will disrupt the ecosystem and possibly threaten the Mohave desert tortoise population that resides there.
In a letter Conserve Southwest Utah provided to others voicing opposition to Stewart’s bill when it was set to be introduced to the Federal Lands subcommittee last month, the group said the bill “undermines the legislative provisions in public law 111-11, also known as the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Lands Bill), which established the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA) to protect tortoise habitat and sensitive ecosystem in Washington County, Utah.”
“The proposed bill designates a four-lane highway through the NCA, circumventing all environmental and federal regulations protecting this area, subverting Congress’ basic intent stated in the 2009 Lands Bill,” the group said.
Despite objections from environmental advocacy groups, the bill’s passing out of committee is seen as a positive for the elected officials of Washington County and the City of St. George.
“We are very pleased that Congressman Chris Stewart’s bill was passed … by the House Committee on Natural Resources,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said in a statement. “It is critical for the transportation needs of St. George and Washington County to have a northern corridor designated.”
“Our beautiful hillsides, bluffs and wildlife can be sensitively protected,” Pike said, “while also allowing for another east/west route for people to utilize in the near future as growth continues to increase the pressure of existing roads.”
The Washington County Commission collectively said that the bill “is a great first step to reaching a resolution on this issue, which is of vital importance.”
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