Erin Mendenhall: UDOT looks to expand I-15 and community is asking the right question, ‘Why?’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives her State of the City Address at Woodbine Food Hall in January 2023.

Salt Lake City’s westside residents should have every opportunity to influence the future of I-15 in our capital city. This historically divided, negatively impacted, formerly redlined community deserves the considerate approach the Utah Department of Transportation is taking — and more — as the state considers expanding I-15.

To date, UDOT has worked to find ways to accomplish many community requests: better connections between the West and East side of the city, upgrading pedestrian and bicycle access, a new interchange with direct connection to Beck Street to discourage large truck traffic through the city, and leaving all Salt Lake City homes in its project area untouched, as reported in their latest screen report.

But as grateful as I am for these steps, the community and I continue to ask: “Why? Why do we need to expand the freeway?”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes border both sides of the I-15 freeway, in Woods Cross, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.

History has shown that if you build more, more will come. Building new lanes encourages the inevitable - more cars coming down I-15, more polluted air from tailpipes and tires, and a not-too-distant future in which we yet again need more space.

Instead of heading down an endless loop that is costly, negatively impacts the health of our residents, and is merely a band-aid for a time, we ought to ask hard questions about the mandate UDOT is given by our legislature and state leadership.

UDOT is charged with shortening commute times, reducing traffic congestion, and ensuring more people can get through the Wasatch Front as our population continues to grow. It is asked to do that while at the same time addressing the community needs and impacts from such a project.

These two tasks are often in conflict with each other when the solution is adding capacity for cars. This places UDOT in between decision makers and the community. While there have been some huge strides lately to increase funding for transit, trails, and bicycle access, when it comes to freeways the prevailing culture continues to favor the car.

I encourage our state leaders to reconsider the culture and mentality behind perpetually adding freeway lanes, look at the well documented problem of induced demand, and instead, make an investment to better balance our transportation system by significantly growing public transit. Improving frequency, coverage, and reducing or eliminating the cost to riders will reduce demand on I-15 and improve the region’s quality of life.

It’s a solution that puts UDOT’s and UTA’s tasks in harmony with one another, but more importantly it’s what our communities are asking for, and I stand behind them 100 percent.

Erin Mendenhall is mayor of Salt Lake City. She is running for re-election in 2023.