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Ellen Birrell: UDOT’s Wasatch Boulevard plan is dangerous by design

State plan encourages more and faster auto traffic, ignoring transit, bikes and pedestrians.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Brent Jakobson, wife Elena Jakobson and Tiffany Skelton, who live on New Heritage Drive in West Jordan protested during a ceremony, Monday, Nov 19, 2018, celebrating completion of a $208 million project that converted four intersections into freeway-like interchanges at 5400 South, 7000 South, 9000 South and 11400 South. They complain that while a new sound wall being built at the 9000 South interchange will tower 11 feet above Bangerter, it will only be a couple of feet tall in their back yards which are at a much higher elevation — saying that creates a danger for children in the area, and also may not do much to reduce noise. Monday, Nov 19, 2018.

In advance of the Utah Department of Transportation’s forthcoming final Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement late May announcement, Save Not Pave, a non-partisan, community coalition, will hold a march and rally on May 22. They seek public awareness for just how massive and dangerous an expansion of Wasatch Boulevard that UDOT has in mind. With part federal and part yet-to-be-approved Utah Legislature funding, its negative implications related to public health and safety are startling.

Buried within an extensive LCC EIS and unreported within the executive summary, are plans to widen and straighten SR 210′s residential section of Wasatch Blvd into a fast-moving, multi-laned arterial.

Residents on social media are complaining about “fast, crazy drivers on Wasatch Blvd.” Many fail to realize that any urban road designed for speeds above 35 mph is inherently dangerous.

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), higher volume of vehicles traveling at speeds over 35 mph equals more fatalities.

Set at 50 mph many decades ago, when SR 210 had a rural feel, a park and houses now press up against the road. Residents need many safe crosswalks to access grocery store, schools and the rest of their community. In a time when UDOT promotes active transportation and transit for cleaner air, exercise and community connection on its website, they are embarking on just the opposite.

“Zero Fatalities” is UDOT’s campaign assuring the public that it is all about reducing annual transportation related deaths from 300 down to 150 by 2030. Utah is currently on track to exceed 300 deaths.

Despite UDOT’s pledge to residents in 2019, by 2020, after hiring a new project manager, UDOT announced there would be no slowing of speed.

According to NACTO, this type of federally supported road design needs to change:

“Among high-income countries, the United States has the highest rate of traffic fatalities, with approximately 40,000 deaths annually. To date, the regulatory standards laid out in the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) have been unable to stem this tide, in contrast to regulatory approaches in Europe or Canada. The Manual’s continued over-emphasis on motor vehicle operations and efficiency undercuts ... efforts to address climate change and social inequities, and USDOT’s mandate to prioritize safety in the country’s transportation system.”

When counting the shoulder on which UDOT plans to run express buses and a new median, it is not the three or five lanes they portray, but six or seven lanes. This fractures the community and introduces lethal danger for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, as well as discourages active transportation and transit, and degrades air quality.

Studying the metrics, why is this noisy, air-polluting, high-speed and dangerous roadway widening to be built at high taxpayer expense? Especially when a direct/non-stop bus added within existing Highland Drive arterial/I-215/Foothill Drive has never been tried? With a Sandy terminus to collect all southeastern Valley commuters, they’d arrive quickly and efficiently to the University of Utah area.

Southeast Valley north/south commuters driving east to Wasatch Boulevard, to drive north, to drop down to the west to enter I-215 makes no sense.

Termed by resident Audrey Pines as “The Highway to Nowhere,” citizen push-back against unnecessary paving or widening of residential roads is high.

Examples:

  • Murray’s “SignTheVine.com” with 1,138 signatures protesting a 50% asphalt expansion funded at 93% by the federal government

  • UDOT’s attempt to widen Highway 248 into Park City’s Prospector neighborhood was halted in 2019 when their city council approved a resolution expressing “the preference for a solution with less pavement and more transit support.”

  • Dimple Dell Wild stopped the paving of DD trails with enough citizen outcry.

  • Residents of Rose Park work with the SLC 600/700 North Mobility, Safety, and Transit Improvements Study creating a plan to transform this corridor in ways that promote safety and improve access for people walking, biking and taking transit.

How is it in a drought state of emergency, with deep concerns over affordable housing, education and public health services, UDOT has money to burn on projects that encourage car driving, undermine public safety and discourage active transportation and transit?

Cycling, running, resident and environmental organizations decry a tax-funded project eliminating this curving gateway boulevard to prized Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons in favor of 2.2 miles of reliably high speed travel for commuters 25 years from now.

Why is UDOT so sure that old commuter trends will return? The COVID era has spawned growing public sentiment that air quality and quality of life is paramount.

Action steps for Salt Lake Valley residents can include getting city councils and Salt Lake County Council to produce, as they did in Park City in 2019, a resolution expressing “the preference for transportation solutions with less pavement and more transit support.” Safer by its very design.

Ellen Birrell, founder of SaveNotPave.org, Cottonwood Heights

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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