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Recession improved Utah's roads
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The recession aggravated unemployment and foreclosures, sliced paychecks and shattered household budgets. But it produced one positive: It helped improve Utah's roads.

Thanks largely to President Barack Obama's recession stimulus package, the percentage of all state highways with good ride quality (instead of fair or poor) increased from 36 percent in 2007 before the recession to 43 percent this year, according to state data provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The data also show which roads now have the best and worst pavement in the state. The best currently is a rural stretch of I-15 south of Beaver. The worst is a section of I-15 in south Provo that is being replaced as part of the massive project to rebuild the freeway there.

The stimulus directed an extra $214 million to 126 "shovel-ready" projects on state highways to create jobs. It came about the same time as other long-in-the-works federal and state projects to rebuild stretches of I-15 (in Utah, Salt Lake and Davis counties), I-80 (in Sugar House), and SR-201 (in Salt Lake County).

Combined, all that turned highways into a sea of orange construction cones. But state data show roads are better and smoother now. "And smooth roads improve mileage by two to four miles per gallon," said Stan Burns, asset management director for the Utah Department of Transportation.

The percentage of Utah's interstate freeways considered "good" improved from 70 percent in 2007 to 78 percent now.

On other high-volume "Level 1" highways (with at least 2,000 cars a day), the percentage in good condition improved from 43 to 52 percent.

On low-volume "Level 2" highways, it rose from 18 percent to 24 percent.

Stimulus as 'savior' • The stimulus "really was kind of a savior," especially for some sections of low-volume, more rural highways where the state had not been able to direct much funding in recent years, said Cory Pope, UDOT director of systems, planning and programming.

"Prior to 2007, what we saw was a continued backlog of restoration and minor rehabilitation projects that we were unable to fund. So pavements were deteriorating," he said. But the stimulus "gave us a chance to reset on some of the pavements that we were struggling to get to."

Pope explains that a few years ago, "We saw we couldn't address all the roads in the state of Utah with the funding we had. So we went to a tiered approach" to prioritize which highways would receive maintenance funding and projects — and which would not.

The state decided to spend virtually all such maintenance funds on interstate freeways and high-volume Level 1 roads — which combined carry 95 percent of the state's traffic.

That left low-volume Level 2 highways — which handle only 4 percent of all traffic, but account for 47 percent of mileage in the state highway system — with what Pope calls a "duct tape and baling wire approach" to keep them passable by reacting to major problems as they arise.

But the stimulus allowed the state to get to several such roads that otherwise may have gone years without work — while using regular funding sources to address freeways and high-volume roads.

While stimulus money may have helped the state catch up on work with those low-volume roads, it was also scattered among freeways and high-volume highways.

"There were a lot of freeway bridges built in the 1960s, where we were able to replace their decks and extend their life," Burns said. An example was a $14.2 million stimulus project to rebuild I-80 from Echo Junction to Emory, and replace several bridges there.

Pope listed several other stimulus projects that replaced poor pavement with good, such as $6.6 million worth of work on Wall Avenue in Ogden; a $20 million project on Syracuse Road in Davis County from 1000 West to 2000 West; and a $2.3 million project to rehabilitate pavement on Foothill Drive in Salt Lake City.

Best/worst highways • Now that most stimulus and other major projects are complete, state data also show which stretches of road are the smoothest and in best condition — and which are the worst. "Not surprisingly, most of the areas with the best pavement are where work was completed recently," Pope said.

And some of the worst roads are Level 2 highways where maintenance funding largely has been cut.

The top five best sections include:

• Interstate 15, south of Beaver, from milepost 94.5 to 98. That is from SR-20 to Fremont.

• Interstate 15, also south of Beaver and adjacent to the No. 1 section of best pavement, from milepost 98 to 105.5.

• Interstate 15, from Meadow to North Fillmore, milepost 158.5 to 169.

• Interstate 15, from Mona to the Juab County line, milepost 239 to 241.5.

• Interstate 80, east of Wendover, from milepost 20 to 30.

The worst five sections are:

• Interstate 15, in South Provo, from milepost 262 to 266. It is being replaced by the project rebuilding I-15 in Utah County.

• SR-143, a road between Panguitch and Brian Head, from the Garfield County line to Panguitch Lake, milepost 28 to 33. No improvements are scheduled for the Level 2 road section.

• SR-144, the road from SR-92 in American Fork Canyon to Tibble Fork, milepost 0 to 2.5. No improvements are scheduled for the Level 2 road section.

• SR-171, 3300/3500 South in Salt Lake County, from 1300 East to 2700 East. It is scheduled for a minor rehabilitation project next year.

• US-189, University Avenue in Provo, from 500 South to the University Parkway crossing. It is currently scheduled for a minor rehabilitation project in 2014.

Prioritizing • UDOT officials say they do not necessarily target the worst roads for work first.

"If we concentrate on the worst at the expense of those at mid-age, you're always going to be chasing your tail," Burns said.

"So we have a very active program so that a road may be only 10 years old, but that may be the time to do one of these one-inch reseals. A concrete pavement may be 15 years old, but that is the time to go out and reseal the joints and grind the road. It's much cheaper over the long haul," he said.

The state has a contractor that uses high-tech vans to drive every section of state highway every year to measure roughness, rutting, texture and pavement distress — and make a video recording of all stretches. Results are available to the public online at roadview.udot.utah.gov.

"We put that into our pavement management models to tell us if you have X number of dollars, you should do this pavement over here and this bridge deck over here, but not that pavement," Burns said. "It's quite a sophisticated process."

He said it is paying off.

"We only have 15 bridges that are structurally deficient. If you look at other states around the country, they can't believe that number is so small. It's because we've taken care of them as they've gotten older. We don't wait for them to get to a really terrible state."

About $214 million in federal stimulus funds went to highways.
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