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Salt Lake City walkers and bikers are hit more on State Street than anywhere else. Will it ever change?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crossing guard Manuel Hernandez works the east side of State Street and Harvard Avenue,Thursday, April 26, 2018. Hernandez said he's come close to getting hit by drivers hurrying to pass him and that he sees the middle finger a lot. Salt Lake City wants to find a solution at reducing the number of auto-pedestrian accidents on State Street.

Walkers and bikers are hit more often on State Street than anywhere else in Salt Lake City, according to police crash records, a reality that may have helped drive a public perception that the road through town needs drastic changes.

The state-owned highway that cuts through all of Salt Lake Valley also is viewed as a hot spot for crime, a tough road to cross even at crosswalks, and a car-friendly climate that’s not great for biking, storefronts or housing.

Residents have told city and state leaders they want to feel safer along the road, and the city worked to put those ideas into a high-level vision for the road in a new draft plan called Life on State that will be presented to the public Monday night at Salt Lake Community College South City campus.

But some of the ideas that consultants say would spur economic growth and make the street safer, like slowing down cars and giving more space to bikers, walkers and buses, clash with policies of the Utah Department of Transportation. That puts in doubt whether the most drastic changes in the draft plan will happen.

“State Street needs to serve a high volume of vehicles,” said Heidi Goedhart, active transportation manager with UDOT. “People need to travel that corridor in downtown Salt Lake City.”

Salt Lake City spent months working with the county, South Salt Lake, the state and Utah Transit Authority to see what residents wanted after what the draft plan says were “decades of change and benign neglect” that degraded the road in “many stretches.”

Residents who weighed in called for making the street safer for all users, plus better transit options and new businesses. Sixty-seven percent of people who gave input said they wanted the street to be safer for bikers, walkers and cars, reduced crime, or general wholesale change.

Indeed, as consultant John Fregonese put it in a recent interview: “There’s no way to get from one side to the other of State safely.”

Salt Lake City engineers confirmed an analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune: In 2016 and 2017, more walkers and bikers were hit on State Street than anywhere else in town. Those collisions occurred at intersections but also at designated pedestrian crosswalks with flashing yellow or red lights throughout the road in Salt Lake City.

Records from the Salt Lake City Police Department show 38 walkers and 27 bikers were hit in that time. (A city traffic engineer put the number at 37 walkers and 30 bikers, but confirmed that both were the highest of any road in the city.) None of the crashes during the two years was fatal.

“Safety was a big driving force behind this plan or the need for this plan because it is the most dangerous place to walk,” said Julia Reed, with Fregonese Associates. “There’s a real need to improve safety and security for pedestrians on State to make it a more enjoyable place to be.”

On much of the street, designated crosswalks are only at intersections that are a quarter-mile from one another. Pedestrians frequently cross midblock.

UDOT representatives say the agency is open to changes that focus on people traveling on foot and it will look at those when it repairs segments of road as part of its regular maintenance schedule. But altering the look and feel of the street — generally by taking some space from cars and giving it to bikers, walkers and buses — clashes with UDOT’s guidelines of keeping cars moving.

“In many respects, it could be true that the community is not seeing the regional aspect of the roadway,” said Molly Robinson, urban designer for Salt Lake City. “And it could be true that UDOT is not seeing the local needs and desires for the roadway.”

Like other state departments of transportation, UDOT conducts road planning using what’s called level of service guidelines, which is generally the ability to keep cars moving down the road without congestion.

“This is a regional roadway,” Goedhart said. “We’re still very focused on maintaining kind of the level of service for cars — the amount of cars that can still drive down this. We’re not looking at removing capacity” for cars.

Using that metric could prevent ideas that consultants and residents put together as part of the new vision, such as bike lanes that are protected from car lanes, wider sidewalks or lanes dedicated to buses, urban planners say.

“If we default to a level of service goal for cars, I’ve been in so many projects where that precludes so many other design elements that are included in” the Life on State draft plan, said Don Kostelec, a Boise urban planning consultant who has done work in Utah.

Business on State

If the biggest changes consultants and the public envisioned would lead to more congestion on State Street, they also likely would lead to more housing, offices and retail being built along the street, consultants said.

Those changes include taking a lane from parking and giving it to bikers who would be protected from traffic by trees. There would be wider medians separating traffic, with areas for pedestrians to take a break while crossing the 100-foot-plus-wide road, and wider sidewalks.

In the project area, which runs from North Temple to 3300 South and 200 East to 300 West, Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake could attract 30,500 new jobs and $4.4 billion in new development over 20 years, according to the draft. That’s up about threefold over the growth the modeling says would happen without any changes.

Sales tax collections from new businesses opening could climb fivefold, and annual property tax collections could climb from $12 million a year to $43 million. Eight-thousand housing units could be created in large and midsize apartment buildings under what the plan calls “full implementation,” up from 1,700 built by doing nothing.

People “don’t necessarily want to have their apartment located on a scene like this,” Fregonese, the consultant, said, showing a picture of State Street near 2300 South in South Salt Lake.

The modeling also looked at changes in retail and office and energy consumption with different changes in the street. It found that every metric but one could improve with more drastic street shifts, though rent would slightly climb compared to the existing setup.

“Converting that auto-oriented use is just a great per-acre return on property taxes for the city,” Kostelec said.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicyclist braves downtown traffic on 300 South, while crossing State Street, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017.

Bike on State

There are no bike lanes on State Street, yet bikers routinely use the shoulders and sidewalks and some join cars in the main lanes to travel north toward downtown or south toward Interstate 80.

Most of the changes proposed in the draft plan don’t include space dedicated to biking. They do include wider sidewalks and possibly eliminating a right-turn-only lane to make space for a bigger pedestrian waiting area that would make crosswalks narrower.

That irks some bike advocates who say residents out of cars face roadblocks to reach existing and possible future businesses there.

“Bicyclists have destinations on State Street,” said Dave Iltis, editor and publisher of Cycling Utah and a biking advocate. “What are we supposed to do?”

Goedhart said bikers have other options, like using parallel streets and side streets to get where they need to on State.

“We’ve kind of understood that a lot of the cyclists need to access destinations on State Street,” Goedhart said. “But predominantly they’re choosing to bike along lower stressed” routes like Main Street and 200 West.

Expecting bikers to use streets off State and still find businesses on State Street is unreasonable, Iltis said.

“The problem is their whole mentality is about moving cars,” Iltis said of UDOT. “They are why I’m participating in the process but I’m not very optimistic with any of it changing.”

UDOT spokesman John Gleason said the agency will continue working with Salt Lake City and others on next steps, and that changes would be put in place if needed and if money is available for them. That could take years, and it would be pricey.

“If funding becomes available and it’s determined that there’s a need there and that need is prioritized then we could potentially go in sooner than that and put in some of these recommendations,” Gleason said.

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