UDOT spent $700K to remove complicated-design intersection, insists using it initially was not a mistake

(Google Maps) Officials spent $700,000 to remove a complicated "ThrU Turn" design at the intersection of 5400 South and 4015 West, shown in this screen grab, but say installing it initially was not a mistake. The intersection returned to allowing left turns.

Kearns • While insisting that it was never really a mistake in the first place, the Utah Department of Transportation just spent about $700,000 to remove a 5-year-old complicated-design intersection on the border of Kearns and Taylorsville.

Businesses there had said the “ThrU Turn” — called a Michigan U-Turn in other parts of the country — was killing them by sometimes requiring drivers to make up to two U-turns to reach them. Some motorists complained the intersection was baffling.

The agency says it was removed because other roadway improvements nearby did away with the need for it — and that it still would be happy to use the controversial design again in the future when and where it makes sense.

“We’re not at all soured on the use of ThrU Turns,” said UDOT spokesman Joe Walker.

A ThrU Turn helps reduce congestion by eliminating all left turns at a major intersection — as it did on 5400 South at 4015 West.

Instead, cars aiming to turn left must first drive straight through that main intersection. In about a block, they make a U-turn at a special “bulb-out” intersection with signals. Then they return to the main intersection and make a right turn.

The design uses raised concrete medians to prevent cars from making U-turns too early. But that also prevents cars from turning left across the roadway into businesses. In some directions, it could require up to two U-turns to reach a store.

Still, ThrU Turns “are especially useful in situations where the flow of through-traffic is being compromised by an unusually large number of vehicles needing to make left turns,” Walker said.

So why did UDOT remove the new design at the Kearns/Taylorsville intersection — installed in 2013?

Walker said that just two blocks from it, UDOT this year installed a new freewaylike interchange on Bangerter Highway at 5400 South. It reduced east-west congestion so much on 5400 South that officials figured the nearby ThrU Turn was no longer needed.

“We did a quick study to see how effective east-west traffic was,” he said. “We talked to Taylorsville City and Salt Lake County, and we all agreed that we really didn’t need the ThrU Turns anymore … so we took them out,” he said.

The intersection returned to how it looked five years ago — with all the raised medians, bulb-out U-Turn intersections and their signals now gone. Traffic lights at the main intersection now again allow left turns there.

Although UDOT didn’t stress it publicly when the ThrU Turn was installed there, Walker said, “When we put it in, we knew at that time it wasn’t a permanent, long-term solution to east-west mobility there.”

He added that a freewaylike interchange nearby at Bangerter was envisioned as that eventual permanent solution. “But at that time, we didn’t have the money” for that expensive undertaking.

So UDOT built the ThrU Turn because “we figured this would be better than nothing because traffic was just coming to a standstill.”

It did move traffic but brought complaints that it was killing nearby businesses — and many motorists found it befuddling. Similar complaints occurred at the two other sites where UDOT has used ThrU Turns, near Interstate 15 on 12300 South in Draper and, more recently, on Hill Field Road in Layton.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cars navigate the ThrU Turn in front of Layton Hills Mall east of Gordon Avenue, in Layton, Saturday, May 12, 2018.

UDOT files show, for example, that a Rancho Market on the corner in Kearns worried traffic changes would put it out of business in a few years. Across the street, a Walgreens, which reported it used to have the chain’s highest sales in the state, complained about “extremely negative impacts.”

“There were a number of complaints initially,” Walker said. “But an interesting thing happens with ThrU Turns. There are initial complaints. But then it starts to work. And people sort of begrudgingly allow that, yes, it is moving traffic more efficiently, but they still don’t really like it because it is kind of a counterintuitive situation.”

He also acknowledged, “Sometimes people adjust their driving patterns to avoid the area.” Still, “There is no question that we were able to take a lot of pressure off of east-west traffic for the time we had it there. … It was the best solution that we could do with the amount of money we had at the time.”

Despite controversy, Walker said, UDOT still may use ThrU Turns in future projects.

“While ThrU Turns are not the answer in every situation,” he said, “there will continue to be circumstances for which they are the right tool for the job.”