Utah freeway traffic returns to near-normal as coronavirus restrictions ease

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A look at how light rush hour traffic was during coronavirus shutdowns is show on I-15 in Farmington on April 22, 2020. During shutdowns, traffic was about 60% of normal. As restrictions have lightened, traffic is now back to near-normal levels in many areas, though it is less in Salt Lake County than other Wasatch Front counties.

Freeway traffic has returned to near-normal level in many areas — but not all — this past week as Utah loosened coronavirus restrictions to allow more businesses to open.

“We’re seeing a return to closer to normal. I won’t say normal yet, especially in Salt Lake County,” where most of the state’s COVID-19 cases have been reported and residents may be more cautious, said Rob Wight, operations director for the Utah Department of Transportation.

But elsewhere, for example, traffic was at 122% of normal on Monday on Interstate 80 near Park City, compared to the 71% low it had hit for a weekday there on April 3.

In Utah County, Interstate 15 at American Fork was at 101% of normal on Monday, up from a low there of 58% for a weekday on March 27.

The situation is far different than just two weeks ago, when Wight had said traffic amid stay-at-home directives had not been so low in two decades since I-15 was widened in Salt Lake County before the 2002 Olympics. “Counts are similar to what we would see on a typical Sunday,” he said then.

Traffic on freeways along the Wasatch Front during the shutdowns typically was about 60% of normal, meaning two of every five vehicles had been removed from the road — making for clear sailing.

No more.

“There are areas that are almost back to normal,” Wight said. “One of them is our entry points coming into the state. We are very close to typical normal traffic coming in and out of the state.”

On Wednesday, for example, I-15 entry points in Idaho and Arizona were at 101% of average.

Traffic in Utah County has been near average levels also this week along I-15. On Wednesday, it was at 97% of average in American Fork, 96% in Spanish Fork and 89% in Provo.

Wight said part of that may be because restrictions have not been as tight in Utah County as in some surrounding counties, but also I-15 there “is not only the freeway, it’s also Main Street. It’s one of the few roads that go north and south all the way through the county. So not only do commuters use the road, you get people who are just going to the store.”

Traffic is also nearing normal in Davis and Weber Counties. On Wednesday, traffic on I-15 was at 96% of normal just north of Ogden, 85% at Roy and 84% at Farmington and Clearfield.

Traffic levels are lower in Salt Lake County.

On Wednesday, I-15 was at 83% of average at North Temple, 81% at 8000 South and 80% at 4800 South.

Traffic was even lighter on Interstate 215. On Wednesday, it was at 71% at 5100 South, 68% at 2300 East and 66% at Wasatch Boulevard.

“I-215 is still lagging a bit because it’s a commuter road,” Wight said. “If you’ve ever driven it on a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll see almost no traffic.” So as more people telecommute during the pandemic, traffic on it has been especially light.

Traffic in some recreation areas remain especially low. Traffic in Moab on Wednesday was just 33% of normal (although that was up from a low of 18% on April 22). And traffic at Zion National Park on Wednesday was 42% of normal (up from a low of 20% on April 21).

As soon as Zion and national parks near Moab reopen, Wight said, “Obviously we’re going to see more traffic.”

Wight said the light traffic during stay-at-home directives offers a glimpse of what the future could be — with less congestion, few accidents and less pollution — if more people chose to telecommute, at least occasionally.

“As a people we are starting to see how this can be done. That’s encouraging for trends that we could look for in the future,” Wight said. “Even a 10% reduction in traffic makes a big difference during peak hours.”

A study by University of Utah researchers released last week also showed that the lower traffic during shutdowns also greatly reduced levels of nitrogen oxide, a key component of tailpipe emissions, and fine particulate pollution.