Tell them what you really want for I-15, Editorial Board writes

UDOT proposal could put roughly 20 lanes in north of Salt Lake City, but one neighborhood is getting it right

The Utah Department of Transportation has decided that I-15 from Salt Lake City to Farmington needs to be wider. A lot wider.

And we’re being asked to weigh in on a choice between a design that would effectively total 18 lanes across and another that would be about 20 lanes wide — counting shoulders. The main difference between the two would be that the wider one would have a pair of reversible lanes running down the middle, lanes restricted to vehicles with more than one occupant, or that pay a toll, that allow traffic to flow south during the morning commute and north in the evening.

The option of not widening the highway, or not widening it that much, is not being seriously considered. Because there are a lot of cars on that stretch of highway now and, as the state’s population inevitably grows, there will be even more traffic there in the future. If the road isn’t widened, the thinking goes, traffic there will slow to a 20-mph rush hour crawl by the year 2050.

The betting here is that such a snarl will happen even if the highway is widened this time. And next time. And the time after that. The sad fact about widening highways is traffic always grows to fill the available space. Sort of like the junk in your basement or garage.

But UDOT’s designers have already been supplied with some $1.6 billion by the Utah Legislature, so it would appear the fix is in.

At a Nov. 14 virtual open house explaining the project, UDOT planners noted the I-15 plan is not expected to handle all the people who want to move from north to south and back again. They said that there are also transit options in the works, including adding a second track to the FrontRunner commuter rail system and improved bus service running between Davis and Salt Lake counties, in the works. But those are in the portfolio of the Utah Transit Authority, not UDOT.

So, because UDOT’s only tool is pouring more concrete, that’s what it is planning to do. Encourage more cars and trucks barreling down — or, by their own estimates, crawling along — the corridor that already befouls the air and segregates the lower-income households to the west from the more affluent neighborhoods to the east.

To be fair, the design options presented by UDOT include extensive side projects to make it easier for not only cars, but also pedestrians and bicycles, to go over or under I-15 from east to west, as well as a feature designed to lure truck traffic away from Salt Lake City’s 600 North.

What our community needs, though, is a broader approach to this problem, managed at the level of the governor and/or legislature, that takes as its goal significantly reducing the demand on I-15 and the perceived need to spend all that money making it bigger. And bigger. And bigger still.

Such plans should include at least as much as the $1.6 billion planned for the I-15 project put into public transit, along that corridor and others, to siphon people and cars onto alternate paths. Between the state’s own surplus accounts and the federal funds available for public works, there’s no way our leaders can plead poverty. Only ignorance. Or force of habit.

The public has until January 13 to weigh in on the I-15 plan at https://i15eis.udot.utah.gov/, by email at i15eis@utah.gov or on paper by writing to UDOT at 392 East Winchester Street, Ste. 300, Salt Lake City, UT 84107. Tell them you choose None of the Above.

Meanwhile, on 2100 South

While you are in a commenting mood, have a look at the plans Salt Lake City has sketched out for a really busy section of 2100 South, from 700 East to 1300 through the redeveloping Sugar House neighborhood.

City staffers, noticing that much of that segment of pavement needs replacing anyway, have been noodling around with ideas that include making the roadway more of a pedestrian/cyclist-friendly boulevard. Options include reducing the street from four lanes to three (one of them a left-turn-only lane), removing on-street parking and favoring walking, biking and taking the bus.

The city’s research indicates that most of the auto traffic along that stretch of 2100 South is bound for that neighborhood, mostly for shopping and eating, and is not just passing through on its way somewhere else. If that is the case, 2100 could be another example of a place where efforts to reduce traffic, not make futile gestures to allow it to go faster, would be the right approach.

Most people like to drive their heavy, expensive, dirty cars just about everywhere they go. To some extent it falls to city and state government to roll their eyes, sigh, and help them to do just that.

But it is also the job of our public officials and servants to take more of a leadership posture and find ways to get us from here to there that don’t just make everything worse. And it is up to the rest of them to tell them that is what we want.