For a half-century, an outsized piece of highway infrastructure has divided Salt Lake City’s northern Ballpark neighborhood.
The city is now wrapping up a study looking at what would happen if the ramp were removed.
The study is expected to focus largely on the effect moving or removing the 900 South ramp to I-15 would have on traffic. But urbanists and advocates in the Central 9th neighborhood view the ramp’s potential removal as an urban planning decision that could help reunite a divided and blighted neighborhood.
“It comes back to a larger discussion about who our city is for,” said Mark Morris, principal of VODA Landscape + Planning in Salt Lake City. “Is the goal to get people in and out as quickly as possible? Or is the goal to make the city more livable and sustainable for those of us that live and work here every day?”
The 900 South on- and off-ramp has effectively extended I-15 over and through a residential neighborhood at a southern gateway into Downtown since the dawn of the interstate system.
It also has altered the fabric of the streets surrounding the ramp, as the Utah Department of Transportation created a bypass system for West Temple through northern Ballpark residential neighborhoods.
Urbanists and advocates for the neighborhood have long dreamed of a neighborhood without the divide, which is owned and maintained by UDOT. The study will provide the first official glimpse into what the city and state believe would happen if the ramp were altered.
“The study is intended as an initial look at the feasibility of relocating the 900 South freeway ramp and will not recommend one alternative over another,” said Jeff Gulden, a transportation engineer with the SLC Transportation Division. “UDOT has been involved in the study along with staff from multiple City divisions.”
Gulden wasn’t willing to share the results of the study before the division can make them public. The division will first present the findings internally to city staff and elected officials, he said.
“The study evaluated a range of alternatives and conducted detailed traffic analysis on several alternatives,” Gulden said. “The alternatives are being compared to each other based on multiple planning level metrics.”
UDOT, which historically has been primarily concerned with motorist level of service, has already cast doubt on the prospect of altering the ramp and hinted that it views the study’s findings negatively.
“There are no current plans for UDOT to transfer ownership due to the regional significance of the route,” said spokesman Courtney Samuel. “The study showed significant impacts with 900 South being removed and/or shortened. Additional studies would still need to be conducted to further evaluate the impacts and alternative options.”
The 900 South ramp takes up about eight acres of land in what is a transit-oriented neighborhood within a mile of Downtown. That’s roughly the same size of the city-owned portion of the Fleet Block, which is undergoing zoning changes ahead of further development of the area. The neighborhood is also hemmed in on the east side by the ramp at West Temple.
“For most of the 20th century, cities across the country invested in expensive and destructive highway infrastructure in order to add value to suburban land, while simultaneously destroying value of urban land,” Morris said. “We’re still dealing with these decisions every day, but knowing the outcomes of these decisions, it’s also our responsibility to push for change and neighborhood repair using these proven methods.”
A look at the traffic
UDOT’s traffic counts show there are about 29,000 average daily car trips on West Temple directly north of the ramp.
Car commuters are also funneled toward the ramp via 800 South and 900 South, the data show, increasing cars on both those roads and requiring traffic signaling that prioritizes highway-bound, rather than Downtown-bound, vehicles. Traffic counts specific to the ramp aren’t publicly available.
While any projections of motorists being slowed as a result of changes to 900 South would likely be enough to prevent UDOT from supporting the concept, cities worldwide have had success in simply eliminating overbuilt roadways in urban areas.
The Embarcadero Freeway once separated San Franciscans from the bay but was removed after damage from an earthquake. It was replaced in 2002 by a parkway that’s designed at a human scale and has been received as a success. Seoul, South Korea, tore out its Cheonggyecheon Freeway to reclaim public space through that city’s downtown.
More recently, fears of paralyzing gridlock in Seattle when its Alaskan Way Viaduct — which carried about 90,000 motorists daily — closed in January didn’t come to fruition. Seattle replaced its elevated freeway with a tunnel and is working on opening its waterfront back up in the process.
The Salt Lake City Council included the ramp within proposed boundaries of a community reinvestment area that otherwise is largely focused on improving UDOT-owned State Street. That creates a potential funding mechanism for removing the ramp if the state were to allow it.