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State 'moves mountains' to upgrade U.S. 6

Published October 4, 2009 11:25 pm

Public safety » Notoriously dangerous Spanish Fork-Price span gets more lanes, fewer curves.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ten years ago it was a startlingly familiar traffic report: Head-on collision in Price Canyon backs up traffic on a two-lane section of U.S. Highway 6. Three dead.

Michelle Huff was stuck in such a jam then, trying to get from the Wasatch Front to her home in the Carbonville area outside of Price. It was one of many times in those days that she counted her blessings when crossing Soldier Summit on what was considered one of America's deadliest highways.

Another anxious speed demon had forced a wreck in a spot where a passing lane might have made the difference.

"If I'd have left 30 minutes sooner, I'd have been ..." Huff paused. "Much closer to it."

Those who haven't traversed the orange cones along U.S. Highway 6 for the past decade might not recognize the road if they head up it today. The Utah Department of Transportation has pumped nearly $160 million into the 65-mile stretch from Spanish Fork to Price. Much of that work has added lanes for safer passing, and when current road work wraps up next summer only 25 miles will remain restricted to one lane in either direction.

The state is nearly finished converting 28 miles of the road into a four-lane highway, some of that with a center turn lane separating eastbound traffic from westbound. Three-lane highway stretches across another 12 miles.

Those are listed as "capacity improvements," but their ultimate effect is to let the speedsters jockey around without ever coming face-to-face with the tractor-trailers that use the highway to get between Interstate 70 and Interstate 15.

"One of the dangerous aspects is people taking chances," said David Nazare, UDOT's Region 3 director in Utah County. Now they can get around slower traffic without the hazards, and through some of the formerly tight canyon curves without skidding.

UDOT has steadily dug into the canyon walls to straighten several of those spots. Now the agency is paying to straighten the curve at Tucker, where rest area once was. The new lanes will go through the rest area and some of the former hillside.

"I've personally seen an RV in the ditch there," said Matt Parker, resident engineer on the project. It was difficult for some drivers to gauge the curve's sharpness, and those in larger vehicles were at risk.

"That curve's not going to be there anymore," Parker said.

A new rest area will open up the road at Tie Fork, along with a visitor center.

"They're literally moving a mountain," said state Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price. "They're straightening out some really bad turns. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a semi turned over on its side, surprised by one of the turns."

She commutes across the road every day to work in Orem, and said there's far less white-knuckle driving now than just a couple of years ago. People still die on the highway, but Watkins believes it's rarely the road's fault. More often it's driver impairment or drowsiness, she said.

The state's fatality records for the highway show an unpredictable pattern of deaths since much of the work started in 2002: nine deaths one year, five the next, eight the year after that. Last year it was down to four.

The number of accidents that caused deaths or serious injuries are down significantly during the past two years. Those accidents were in the high 20s earlier this decade and peaked at 41 in 2005. In 2007 there were 14. Last year there were 10.

Watkins is happy, but not satisfied. There's at least one more mountain to move, she said. Motorists call it the Red Narrows, a windy spot around Mile 193 where the canyon wall on one side and railroad on the other compress the road into two lanes. At least twice, Watkins said, she has had a scare sliding on black ice there. There's not much sun on the roadway, and she believes widening the slot could correct that.

"That one's going to be very, very expensive," she said. But she said she'll try to help secure funding for such an earth-moving project.

UDOT estimates it will cost $65 million to $80 million to straighten a five-mile stretch there. In the meantime, contractors have installed a concrete barrier separating traffic in some places and rumble strips elsewhere to alert drowsy motorists that they're drifting.

Similar improvements line the road in many places between Spanish Fork and Soldier Summit.

Eight-foot wildlife fences -- wire and wooden posts -- and a new wildlife underpass also protect part of the route against elk and deer collisions. That improvement west of Soldier Summit around Mile 200 corrects a problem that state wildlife officials feared the upgraded highway might actually create. A new and wider bridge over railroad tracks gives more passing area on its surface, but creates a longer tunnel underneath. Biologists wondered if wildlife would avoid it and just cross the pavement.

Huff, the Carbonville motorist who remembers many mangled cars on the Highway 6 shoulder, said she's more confident driving the road these days. The speed demons are still there, but aren't quite the same threat as before.

"People still drive the road pretty crazy," she said, "but now they have a little more room to do it."