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Foothill Drive is frustrating for commuters. Here’s how UDOT plans to fix that

“We know there’s a lot of frustration about Foothill,” said the Salt Lake City Traffic Division director. “We feel optimistic about the next few years and what we’ll be able to do.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic moves along Foothill Dr. and Sunnyside Ave. in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, as the city and UDOT plan to make it more pedestrian-friendly and reduce the amount of time vehicles spent idling at red lights on the increasingly busy thoroughfare. Part of the reconstruction will get rid of the big right turn onto northbound Foothill and replace it with a regular turn lane.

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Foothill Drive is a nightmare. At least that’s the sentiment of many drivers needing to commute on the thoroughfare during peak hours – especially on University of Utah football game days.

The Utah Department of Transportation and Salt Lake City Transportation Division know this and are working on some ideas for how to alleviate some of the congestion on what’s been a historically difficult street.

“We hear the community,” Jon Larsen, city transportation director, said. “We know there’s a lot of frustration about Foothill … we feel optimistic about the next few years and what we’ll be able to do.”

As state Route 186, Foothill Drive is managed by UDOT, but the intersecting streets are in the city’s domain. The two departments are working together on one of a few planned projects aimed at reducing traffic.

The city is taking the lead to reconstruct the Foothill Drive and Sunnyside Avenue intersection in the summer to make it more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. With alternatives to driving, the city hopes fewer people will feel the need to drive.

Prioritizing pedestrians

The aim for this reconstruction is to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street by removing the unusual right turn lane from Sunnyside Avenue onto northbound Foothill Drive.

Right now, drivers don’t have to stop on what engineers call the “free right turn” because they merge onto Foothill Drive. This leaves pedestrians in the precarious position of crossing an unlighted lane.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic moves along Foothill Dr. and Sunnyside Ave. in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, as the city and UDOT plan to make it more pedestrian-friendly and reduce the amount of time vehicles spent idling at red lights on the increasingly busy thoroughfare. Part of the reconstruction will get rid of the big right turn onto northbound Foothill and replace it with a regular turn lane.

“You’re fearing for your life crossing” the lane, Larsen said. “We’re cleaning all that up and straightening it out and making it more comfortable and convenient to walk or bike.”

After construction, the intersection will look like any other with a dedicated right turn lane stopping at the same place as through traffic. Transportation department studies have shown not many drivers use that free right turn, Palmer said.

The space saved by the change will be overseen and landscaped by the University of Utah and Research Park, Larsen said.

The intersection will hopefully become a connection for the 9 Line Trail, an expanding multi-use path for walkers and cyclists to travel roughly adjacent to 900 South.

Shifting away from vehicle focus

The intersection project is one example of how the city and UDOT plan to handle Foothill Drive moving forward – They want to help people use alternate forms of transportation to keep cars off the road rather than expanding the road just to move existing traffic more quickly.

“For the last 100 years, transportation investments have been made, really around the country, on letting people drive faster and have completely ignored the needs of people walking or biking or taking the bus,” Larsen said. “It’s a matter of trying to bring a little bit more balance to the system overall.”

The plans are in response to feedback from residents, said Brad Palmer, who oversees UDOT projects in Salt Lake County. Most residents don’t want to see Foothill Drive become more like a highway. And adding more lanes would require the state to purchase more land, costing millions of dollars and leading to the demolition of homes and buildings along the street.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic moves along Foothill Dr. and Sunnyside Ave. in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, as the city and UDOT plan to make it more pedestrian-friendly and reduce the amount of time vehicles spent idling at red lights on the increasingly busy thoroughfare. Part of the reconstruction will get rid of the big right turn onto northbound Foothill and replace it with a regular turn lane.

“UDOT doesn’t want to create those kinds of severe impacts,” Palmer said.

UDOT is looking to make smaller fixes to promote alternative modes of transportation. Plans include better sidewalks and lighting as well as landscaping to improve pedestrian safety and experience.

The more significant changes would come at intersections.

Many of the streets that cross Foothill Drive don’t form perfect right angles. With the wider angles with some streets, drivers don’t feel the need to slow down as much as they would if it were a sharper turn. These fast-moving cars put the pedestrians in the crosswalks at higher risk.

“A lot of the cars coming off of Foothill and onto those side streets are doing it really fast because they’ve got a reduced angle there,” Palmer said. “If we can make that turn a little more abrupt and force the cars to slow down, it’s a lot safer for people crossing the street.”

“Overwhelming” to fix Foothill Drive problems

Larsen and Palmer are hopeful that these plans will help ease some of the congestion and its related frustration for drivers on Foothill Drive. The projects are still small in size though.

“We’ve studied Foothill for 20 years with very little progress because it’s just so overwhelming,” Larsen said. “Where do you even start?”

UDOT has studied ways to better the interchange of Foothill Drive with Interstate 215, Palmer said, to alleviate the growing congestion there.

That project is waiting for funding, Palmer said, and it will likely take years before work begins.