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Ellen Birrell: UDOT ignores citizen input in Wasatch Boulevard redesign

State agency values a slightly shorter commute over quality of life in Cottonwood Heights.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City skyline begins to emerge from fog Monday morning Feb. 15 as seen from Wasatch Blvd and 5500 S.

”Work with what you’ve got” was the advice from Cottonwood Heights leaders when the Utah Department of Transportation announced it had millions of dollars from the Legislature to spend on reducing traffic on State Route 210 from Fort Union Boulevard to Alta.

“It is better to work with UDOT than to try and fight them,” they said.

So, work with UDOT officials we did. Invited by the agency to a Little Cottonwood Canyon environmental impact statement open house, hundreds mobbed Cottonwood Heights City Hall in April 2019 and continued to participate in open houses, neighborhood meetings and design charrettes.

Residents from around the Salt Lake Valley made it clear they wanted improvements to Wasatch Boulevard that included traffic calming, egress/ingress to neighborhoods, slower speeds and fewer lanes so that the ability to cross the road for bicyclists and pedestrians is frequent and safe.

One local put it well: “We are happy to share our community with others traveling to work in Research Park or the U. of U. or to work or ski in the ski areas. We just ask that UDOT choose a nonpolluting logical solution that works for everyone.”

Alternative transportation such as transit to solve peak ski days and year-round commuter times was stressed.

UDOT project manager John Thomas is on July 2, 2019, public record testifying that UDOT officials were working toward making the boulevard a “gateway facility” that would aim for a 35 mph speed limit through Cottonwood Heights.

Now, in 2020, with a new UDOT project manager at the helm, the path UDOT was on to meet its constituents’ needs has been thrown overboard.

Within the latest addendum, there was nary a mention of the residents who collectively put in hundreds of hours studying plans, writing proposals, attending and hosting meetings. Our suggestions for alleviating State Route 210 traffic through the 2.7 mile stretch of Wasatch Boulevard were ignored. Excluded from the addendum executive summary is UDOT’s plan for what it calls Imbalanced three-lane and five-lane for Wasatch Boulevard. These are actually five-lane and seven-lane alternatives, because the shoulders will be used for express bus service.

Wasatch Boulevard through Cottonwood Heights was awarded a 50 mph speed limit many decades ago, before residential build-out pressed against it from all sides. Instead of leaving the pine-tree-lined, curving character of the road and reducing the speed for the two-mile stretch, UDOT is hellbent on straightening and expanding to meet high speed design.

Why?

Its answer: “Reliability.”

What is reliability?

“That is so that a commuter can know exactly how long it will take to drive a given point to point stretch.”

My response: “To shave 40 seconds off a driver’s anticipated commute, you are going to forever ruin this precious, scenic stretch — one of the last in urban Salt Lake Valley? Without serious screening of improved express (and prioritized!) bus service, you are going to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to bulldoze and asphalt doubling the width and adding danger, air, noise and light pollution for recreationalists and local residents?”

”Local consternation is not only with UDOT but with our own Cottonwood Heights mayor and council majority. Unlike with the 2005 Cottonwood Heights city and 2017 Fort Union Boulevard master plans, which both included a long list of local residents who worked diligently to identify best practices and objectives, the 2019 Wasatch Blvd Master Plan includes no locals (other than the City Council persons and their staff).

Can you guess the authors? Let me help: UDOT, Wasatch Front Regional Council and corporate consultants. An 830-person petition presented to the Cottonwood Heights City Council in June 2019, indicating preference for “maximum of 3-lanes, 35 mph maximum speed, improved egress/ingress to neighborhoods and emphasizing paths and safety for pedestrians and bicyclists” was disregarded in favor of the plan city officials approved the next month based on five lanes and no specific slower speed limit. It was a dream come true for UDOT, WFRC and developers everywhere.

Public health and safety have been lost in the shuffle.

Our city, my neighbors, feel helpless facing a structurally and systematic disempowerment of citizens by our democratic institutions. Accountability, transparency and an educated citizenship are the path to correct these wrongs.

Ellen Birrell

Ellen Birrell, a youth advocate and founder of SaveNotPave.org, lives in a four-bicycle/one-car household in Cottonwood Heights.

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