Cottonwood Heights residents march against expansion of Wasatch Boulevard

The Utah Department of Transportation wants to expand the road to alleviate ski traffic, but residents say it will just make travel more congested and more dangerous.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People hold a Save Not Pave march and rally on Saturday, May 22, 2021, in opposition to the proposal to widen Wasatch Blvd., between the canyon section of Big and Little Cottonwood canyon.

Residents of Cottonwood Heights and Sandy held aloft signs and waved to cars along Wasatch Boulevard to protest the Utah Department of Transportation’s proposed expansion of the road to alleviate congestion during ski season.

The Saturday morning rally was organized by Save Not Pave, an organization advocating for safer roads and transportation alternatives in Utah. Protesters gathered at Golden Hills Park and marched between Bengal Boulevard (7200 South) and 8300 South along Wasatch Boulevard.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Kraan, leads a group of people down Wasatch Blvd., for a Save Not Pave march and rally on Saturday, May 22, 2021, in opposition to the proposal to widening Wasatch Blvd., between the canyon section of Big and Little Cottonwood canyon.

UDOT has proposed an expansion of 2.2 miles of the two-lane road beginning at the 6200 south exit off Interstate 15 leading up Little Cottonwood Canyon, where ski resorts like Snowbird and Alta reside. The expansion, which is being introduced as part of the Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement, would include five lanes of traffic plus two shoulders that would accommodate buses during ski season.

The purpose of the expansion is to allow easier traffic to the ski resorts, but advocates argue that it will only cause more safety and traffic issues.

“Well, [expanding the road] is not going to solve any problems with getting people to Snowbird and Alta,” said Ellen Birrell, co-director of Save Not Pave. “You’ll simply create a bottleneck when all those lanes of traffic meet the two-lane road leading into the canyon.”

The debate over Wasatch Boulevard started in June 2019, when residents of Cottonwood Heights created a petition for an update to the road that included a large median in the center to accommodate buses traveling to and from the resorts.

UDOT rejected the proposal and instead adopted the current model, which was proposed by the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

“It was clear to us, the residents, that our city was aligning [with] what the Wasatch Front Regional Council wanted to see instead of what the residents wanted to see,” Birrell said.

She said the road has “needed for improvements for decades. It’s very unsafe. There’s many sections where there’s no bike lane, where there’s no sidewalks. … There are houses where their fences press right up against the asphalt.”

One woman was killed crossing Wasatch Boulevard in October 2020. Birrell said she tried to obtain more information about the woman but was turned away by city hall officials. They marched through the very same intersection where she was struck and killed.

“Like, my goodness, we’re not talking about somebody jaywalking,” Birrell said. “We’re talking about people that were in crosswalks, for goodness’ sakes.”

Birrell said there are parents in the community who won’t allow their children to cross Wasatch Boulevard because of how fast cars travel along the road. That danger is starting to divide the community.

Aaron Dekeyzer, who is running for Sandy City Council and serves as a co-director of Save Not Pave, said that as he’s canvassed the community in preparation for his campaign, many parents have expressed concern about the roads.

“They want their children to be able to cross roads, but so many of these roads have the consequence of dividing our communities,” Dekeyzer said. “They want them to be able to walk to Grandma’s or their friends’ homes. They want speed bumps for the people who drive too fast, and more and more I’m hearing about noise pollution.”

Dekeyzer called the debate over the road a “matter of contamination. Whether it’s noise pollution or light pollution, traffic problems or not being able to share the road with bicyclists, all of those are contaminants on our roads.”

Protesters returned to a pavilion on the park grounds to hear from speakers about the issue, including Salt Lake County Councilman Jim Bradley, state Sen. Kathleen Riebe, Sandy City Councilwoman Monica Zoltanski and Dekeyzer. Dekeyzer estimated that there were about 200 people at the march.

“I would love to say that the outcome is that UDOT will take note and do something about it … but we don’t have much faith in the process,” Dekeyzer said. “It’s complicated by design, and that’s so they can put their agenda through. I fully anticipate that UDOT will announce a preferred alternative that is unacceptable to Save Not Pave.”

UDOT will announce its preferred alternative sometime this summer, though it has not made a final decision yet. There will be a period of public comment, and then the department will finalize the decision this winter.

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