Gov. Cox says I-15 must be expanded, but he'd love not to | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Gov. Cox says I-15 must be expanded, but he'd love not to 

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click to enlarge Utah Gov. Spencer Cox takes questions from reporters at PBS Utah on Thursday, May 18. - POOL PHOTO
  • Pool Photo
  • Utah Gov. Spencer Cox takes questions from reporters at PBS Utah on Thursday, May 18.

UNIVERSITY—The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) moved one step closer to its planned expansion of Interstate 15 this month, releasing an updated screening report on the projected impacts to homes, businesses, schools and parks located between Salt Lake City and Farmington as the freeway's footprint consumes new territory.

The department appears to be pursuing the narrowest widening option—but widening nonetheless—of the alternatives it prepared for community review last year. And UDOT representatives told a capacity crowd of west side residents at Mestizo Coffee House on Wednesday that draft plans currently do not call for the demolition of any Salt Lake City residences. If true, the widening would still require the seizure of commercial and community properties in Salt Lake, as well as the displacement of a large swath of family homes in Davis County.

Asked about the plans on Thursday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said that highway expansion must be approached cautiously and that no plausible amount of lane widening will ever eliminate traffic congestion. But he made clear that this widening project, in these locations, must go on.

"I would love to not ever have to expand our freeways, but we are a growing state," Cox said. "This is something that has been planned for a long time."

Cox's comments came during his monthly televised press conference at PBS Utah. He noted that highway expansion—which includes the construction of an entirely new freeway in west Davis County—is being considered in conjunction with investments in active and public transportation, particularly the double-tracking of the Frontrunner regional train.

Frontrunner trains currently run once per hour, with additional 30-minute trains during peak travel times. Double-tracking would allow the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) to shift to a 30-minute standard frequency, with 15-minute intervals at peak, making the service considerably more practical for mainstream commuters.

But UDOT projects the earliest possible date for double-tracked service is still six years away, in 2029, comparable to the time it took for the United States to reach the moon. Cox said the delay is attributable to local policies and decisions, but also "arcane and byzantine" procedures at the federal level that make the permitting and groundbreaking of large projects difficult.

"I’m not comfortable with the pace of building anything in this country," Cox said.

But while transit improvement stagnates and highway buildout proceeds unabated, UDOT's car-dominant traffic projections are far from a consensus viewpoint. Despite having "transportation" in its name, UDOT was only formally tasked with planning for non-automotive movement in the last few years and until 2023 did not have any staff dedicated to the study, design and implementation of public transportation, according to Wednesday testimony before the Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee.

Outside experts, particularly those with a background in urban planning, are increasingly questioning the very premise on which freeway expansion is based: that more lanes will ease traffic congestion. Instead, they argue that real-world scenarios follow a pattern of "induced demand," in which road investments merely prompt additional use of the roadways and the entrenchment of car-dependent lifestyles.

In a report by Utah's ABC4 released on Thursday, the example of Texas' infamous Katy Highway is described—where widening left the freeway as clogged as ever, with gridlock just covering more geographical area—as was the performance of the Beehive State's previous attempts to get around traffic demand through expansion.

"Salt Lake City reportedly saw a 16% increase in new freeway lane miles between 1993 and 2017 with a 32% increase in population, according to the Congestion Report," the ABC4 report states. "Despite the attempt to ease traffic congestion, Salt Lake reportedly had a 279% increase in traffic delays during that time."

UDOT leadership does not recognize the validity of induced demand, but testimony at Wednesday's committee hearing included an implicit recognition that widening, beyond a certain point, does more harm than good. While presenting on some of the transit projects under development—including either light rail or bus rapid transit between Draper and Lehi—UDOT representatives were asked by Rep. Mike Petersen, R-Logan, if it would be better to simply build new freeways anywhere a transit line is proposed, or to widen the interstates indefinitely.

They responded that the "efficiency" of a freeway drops after six travel lanes in each direction and that the costs associated with transit expansion, once initially built, are comparably low, as it requires the lengthening of a train or bus, rather than widening of the right-of-way.

In other growth news, Cox was asked about the prospect of Utah acquiring new professional sports franchises, as high-profile groups within the state are actively pursuing deals with Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Cox said the interest in Utah is a testament to the state's success, and that he believes at least one new team, if not more than one, is Beehive State bound, though he declined to suggest any names for the potential franchises.

"Baseball is good for the soul; hockey is fun," Cox said. "I think these are wonderful opportunities.

Click here to watch the governor's press conference in full.

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Benjamin Wood

Benjamin Wood

Lifelong Utahn Benjamin Wood has worn the mantle of City Weekly's news editor since 2021. He studied journalism at Utah State University and previously wrote for The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News and Entertainment Weekly

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