Lawmakers approve two-year closure of Rio Grande street so Salt Lake City can’t revisit the issue before 2019

Utah legislators approved several bills Wednesday afternoon in a special session, including the closing of Rio Grande Street for homeless mitigation and settlement with a road contractor on a troubled northern Utah County rebuild.

Now, says House Speaker Greg Hughes, it is assured that a necessary “safe space” can keep the needy homeless away from drug dealers and other predators around social service providers in downtown Salt Lake City.

There’s an interesting line in HB1002, the bill setting up the state lease of the northern part of the Grande at 200 South.

It says that the street can’t be re-opened by the city until the lease’s end – June 2019. That is when The Road Home overnight shelter will be closed.

Sources tell that state officials demanded that be in the law, as it stops any game-playing by city officials.

You may recall that Hughes, R-Draper, exploded at Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski, a former Democratic House member, several weeks ago when she briefly refused to use her executive powers to close that portion of the Grande.

Hughes claimed at the time that Biskupski – confronted with several million dollars in additional cost for the city – tried to hold up the “safe space” construction in order to get the state to pay more of the cost.

Biskupski didn’t deny that at the time, but did say later it was not part of her thinking – she said she wanted public hearings before the road would be closed.

She later relented, closed the road temporarily, and Tuesday night the City Council unanimously agreed to the road lease with the state.

Wednesday, Hughes told that the city’s traditional road closure process could require a rehearing in a year.

“Why would we want to go through this again” next year? Hughes asked UtahPolicy – one reason the new law says the city can’t open the road before the lease’s end, June 2019.

Lawmakers lauded Hughes Wednesday, saying the homeless work would not have prevailed without his leadership.

Still, the debate was not without questions.

While saying he would support Operation Rio Grande, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said it’s not the state’s proper role to jump into a city issue like local crime/homelessness.

Additionally, he wanted assurances that Salt Lake City and County officials – specifically law enforcement – would change their attitudes and enforcement around homeless shelters and encampments.

That, said Nelson, is the real reason for this spring and summer’s crisis of homeless/lawlessness on Rio Grande: Bad and inadequate policing that allowed for a virtual open-air drug dealing market and victimization of homeless people.

Several other House members rose to argue against Nelson’s concerns, with both House Majority Leader Brad Wilson and Majority Whip Frances Gibson saying homelessness is a state issue, and it is properly dealt with in the Legislature.

The House unanimously voted for a bill that allows $4.9 million in already-approved homeless monies being reallocated to needy programs.

Only House Minority Assistant Whip Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake, voted against the closure of Rio Grande. She said she’s worried many of the homeless, some with mental illness, won’t get an I.D. card to access the “safe space,” and thus won’t get needed help nor be sheltered from drug dealers.

In the Senate, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, noted that the closure bill was changed from applying only to Salt Lake County so that all counties can get state aid.

And Hillyard warned that if other areas (besides Salt Lake City and County) come to the Legislature asking for homeless allocations, they should be careful – and not just assume the state will step in to help.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said after the session ended: “Rio Grande has been a magnet for this kind of illegal activity. We’re starting to get a handle on that.

“For years all of that activity has been drawn to a central location. Now that we’re breaking that up, it’s going to put more pressure on local law enforcement. But, these are problems that they would have been dealing with if Rio Grande hadn’t pulled those elements to downtown Salt Lake City.”

Lawmakers also approved a multi-million dollar settlement with a contractor on the screwed up rebuild of Timpanogos Highway from I-15 to Highland and American Fork Canyon.