When Grantsville Mayor Brent Marshall mentioned the idea at a Council of Governments meeting in March 2014, he noted it had been talked about before, even decades ago.
At that COG meeting, Marshall urged it was time, because of growing commuter traffic squeezing through Lake Point, to find out if Tooele and Salt Lake counties could be connected via an alternative transportation corridor through the Oquirrh Mountains — a tunnel with a two-lane highway.
He asked for a feasibility study to be done and the Wasatch Front Regional Council agreed. The WFRC said that a tunnel might sound ambitious, but it was time to consider the costs and implications for “economic development, safety and security.”
That study has been completed, the results of which were shared at a COG meeting on Oct. 24. A front-page story in last Thursday’s edition reported a tunnel with a road could be punched through the Oquirrhs — but it won’t come cheap.
According to the study, which cost $200,000 and was funded by the Utah Legislature, three locations were considered. The first was Middle and Butterfield canyons. It would require a nearly one-mile long tunnel about five miles up Middle Canyon to keep a 2 lane road at a 6-percent gradient through the Oquirrhs to Butterfield Canyon in Salt Lake County.
From end-to-end, the new road and tunnel would be about 15 miles long, and include 10-foot-wide paved shoulders for snow, pedestrians and cyclists, along with scenic pullouts.
And the projected price tag? $329 million.
The other two locations were Pass Canyon to Barney Canyon, and Ophir Canyon to Oak Canyon. The Pass Canyon alternative was not fully evaluated because it would travel through the International Smelter and Refining Superfund site in Tooele Valley, and pass through a mining operation on the Salt Lake County side in Barney Canyon.
The Ophir and Oak canyons route was reportedly dropped because of low predicted use and mountainous terrain that would have required three miles of tunnels.
At the Oct. 24 COG meeting, the Tooele County Commission said it preferred the Pass and Barney canyons route because of its proximity to state Route 36 and central location in Tooele Valley. The commissioners also noted they didn’t believe the Superfund Site was an insurmountable obstacle.
At a projected cost of $329 million, it doesn’t look like a tunnel in Middle Canyon will be dug anytime soon. What currently appears more feasible is the state extending state Route 201 at Black Rock to Lake Point to ease traffic congestion.
Yet, it would be wise to give serious thought to what role Middle Canyon should or should not take to meet Tooele Valley’s growing population in the future. Such thought is necessary because an extended SR-201 to Lake Point will reach capacity — and then the look for another alternative route to reduce traffic will begin again.
Chances are that look may be pointed at Middle Canyon, and hefty construction costs may not be a deterrent. Let the feasibility study be a wake-up call that the idea of a tunnel through the Oquirrhs is no longer just fanciful talk.