For years, drivers heading through the booming Utah city of Lehi would run into a bottleneck as Interstate 15 narrowed from six lanes in each direction to four. But last year a project to widen the busy freeway — a top priority of local leaders — was completed.

When a national group representing state highway officials presented the project with an award for community development and quality of life, citing its inclusion of pedestrian and bike paths, it looked like validation for a job well done.

“It’s about as multimodal as you can get,” said John Gleason, a spokesman for the state transportation department. “When you’re recognized for an award like this, it’s confirmation that we are doing things the right way.”

But when the award was announced with a photo online showing a tangle of concrete and asphalt seemingly devoid of life, the criticism arrived swiftly. “I think I’m gonna need a definition of ‘life’ and ‘quality’ from you,” wrote one Twitter user.

The announcement of an award by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) might seem an unlikely moment for an Internet pile-on, but the post highlighted a core dispute about what role cars and highways should play in the future of transportation. The debate has taken on significance as Congress debates a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal and the Biden administration tries to craft environmental and racial justice policies in a nation where driving is a necessity in most places.

Supporters tout the Lehi project’s successes. Business leaders backed the widening, the state says it has cut evening commute times in half and it has been praised by the industry: Roads & Bridges magazine called it the top road of 2020, praising its “ingenuity and good old-fashioned smart design.”

To advocates for a less car-dominated society, handing out an award for “quality of life” to a 12-lane highway flanked by frontage roads on each side seemed farcical.

“When a prize roadway project in the ‘Quality of Life/Community Development’ category shows signs of neither — not even a single person on foot, bike or transit — it deserves our scorn, not our praise,” wrote Janette Sadik-Khan, a former New York City transportation commissioner. “By these Orwellian standards, there is no such thing as traffic failure.”

The AASHTO said the award category is designed to recognize projects that “have significantly benefited the community in which they exist, especially in the form of economic growth and well-being of citizens. These projects better connect people to businesses, jobs, health-care facilities, and recreational activities while also encouraging a mix of transportation modes.”

Tony Dorsey, a spokesman for the organization, said award judges were anonymous and not available for an interview about why they awarded the Utah project. He said the organization could have chosen a better photo to illustrate the features the award recognized.

Lehi is split by Interstate 15 and sits between Salt Lake City and Provo — its population surging from 47,400 in 2010 to 75,900 in 2020, placing it among the nation’s fastest-growing cities. Software firm Adobe opened an office in 2012 and the area gained the nickname “Silicon Slopes.”

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the community in the last 10 years,” said Cameron Boyle, the assistant city administrator.

But unlike other segments of Interstate 15, a four-mile section running through the city hadn’t been widened. Local leaders worried congestion threatened to hamper growth. A group of businesses launched a website, flippintraffic.com, as part of a campaign to get the state to move up its construction schedule.

The $415 million project began in 2018 and was finished last October. It involved construction on 17 bridges and building frontage roads to improve local traffic flow, along with access to a transit hub and a system of trails and pedestrian crossings.

Those trails connect to a network that stretches to Salt Lake City and nearly down to Provo.

“I understand that there may be this notion that DOTs are focused on simply moving cars,” Gleason said. “I just don’t think that’s the reality anymore, nor can it be.”

But critics of projects like the one in Utah question how committed states are to changing decades-old practices. Zabe Bent, design director at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), said in the face of climate change, racial injustice and soaring road deaths, planners must look beyond marginal improvements, adding that the transportation system needs to be rethought.

“It’s not enough to champion a highway project that incorporates a bike lane,” she said.

Bent’s group, which is chaired by Sadik-Khan, is AASHTO’s upstart younger sibling, challenging the dominance of state officials and highway building in the nation’s infrastructure system. While success has typically been measured by how many and how quickly cars can move, advocates and planners are increasingly talking in terms of how projects guarantee access to economic, social and educational opportunities.

At least a half-dozen former city leaders with ties to NACTO now hold key positions in the Biden administration, including Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg. Ideas advanced by the group and other advocacy organizations have gained traction with House Democrats, who crafted a transportation bill that would have set new environmental standards, limit the construction of new roads and made major investments in transit.

Beth Osborne, director of advocacy organization Transportation for America and who served in the Obama administration, said she thinks the Utah award was misjudged, but that AASHTO seeking to champion quality of life is a sign that criticism she and others have leveled at the nation’s approach to transportation is starting to “sting.”

“They have gotten 70 years of this strategy and it hasn’t worked yet,” she said. “They’re on precarious ground.”

Yet states continue to expand their highways, trying to accommodate growth and keep traffic flowing. The House bill Osborne and her allies embraced has been pushed aside in favor of the bipartisan package brokered in the Senate that retains a greater focus on road spending, leaving many transit advocates and environmentalists feeling shortchanged. Over five years, the bill would provide about $350 billion for highways, about $107 billion for transit and $66 billion for rail.

Charles Marohn, author of the book “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,” said the Utah highway project serves as a metaphor for the Senate proposal.

“The compromise bill is basically a highway bill with a veneer of handouts for everyone else to make the medicine go down easier,” he said.

Marohn, founder and president of advocacy group Strong Towns, said it’s hard to know what designing a more sustainable U.S. transportation system would look like in practice for much of the country, where driving has shaped communities for decades. He said lessons from Europe’s dense cities, where leaders have increasingly promoted cycling and have put limits on driving, might work along parts of the East Coast, but not as well elsewhere.

“We need an approach to growth that is not dependent on us building new transportation infrastructure, but instead makes better use of the transportation infrastructure we’ve already built,” he said.