UDOT executive says Utah needs wider highways to avoid becoming California, a place with wide roads and gridlock

To start off this month, the deputy director of Utah’s Department of Transportation said the state needs to spend billions widening interstates and building more highway capacity or face a future of gridlock.

Not doing so, said Jason Davis, would cause the Californication of Utah.

“Without construction and improvements, we eventually get bogged down and we become California — and we have those traffic jams that none of us like to be stuck in,” Davis said at a recent news event, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The ensuing roadbuilding list that UDOT has prioritized for 2019 seems to ignore research that shows states that prioritize cars by constantly adding road capacity can actually worsen the traffic problems those states are trying to solve.

In all, UDOT is spending $2.1 billion on more than 150 projects this year, much of that money going toward highway expansion.

Davis’s argument, it seems, is not that southern California’s car-dominant land use patterns and wide highways have created an area that leads to more driving, it’s that California’s highways perhaps aren’t big enough.

Where to start?

The same week as the news conference, researchers at the University of Southern California released a study showing that recently added capacity on California’s I-405 failed to speed traffic times.

In fact, there is much research that shows that the convenience created by bigger roads eventually leads more people to drive, thereby filling up the new capacity and creating the gridlock engineers sought to avoid in the first place.

Ironically, much of the research comes out of California. The studies span decades, showing the tendency of highway building to induce more driving and alter land use near those roadways.

This paper, from earlier this year, provides a long list of existing research that transportation planners in Utah (and anyone else interested in where taxes are being spent on transportation) can find in one place.

It notes a study (again, from California) that found “60-90% of increased road capacity is filled with new traffic within five years.”

This research, also from UC-Berkeley, reports on the flaws in induced demand studies and instead says the public debate should focus on how best a state can spend the public’s money to benefit society.

“While the induced demand phenomenon is important and not to be trivialized, far more energies need to go toward studying how America can best invest and manage scarce urban transportation resources – e.g., should we be building more bus rapid transit systems, expanding value-pricing on former carpool lanes, or more closely integrating transportation and land use, and if so, when, where, and under what conditions?”

That discussion seems to be missing every time UDOT unveils its list of road widening projects each year for the past four years, when a majority of projects involve adding capacity and converting some roads to operate as freeways.

What others at the agency are saying

In response to questions about Davis’s comments, others at the agency said Utah is different from California and Texas, where one of the country’s widest freeways, the Katy Freeway, has 26 lanes for people in cars, including collector lanes.

Texas and California “have very different land use, public transit and social context compared to the state of Utah,” said Heidi Goedhart, active transportation manager at UDOT.

“While there is pretty good evidence for induced demand through research and looking at projects in particular, Utah has a very robust transit network compared to other municipalities,” Goedhart said. “Salt Lake, for instance, and the Wasatch Front has a very robust transit backbone compared to other areas or metro areas similar to our size.”

Goedhart noted a few recent changes she says will change UDOT’s approach and ability to pay for projects that don’t involve highway expansion.

First, UDOT has been working alongside regional planners to improve other transportation options, including on the Wasatch Front Central Corridor Study that calls for more free transit, buffered bike lanes, buffered interstate lanes exclusively for carpoolers and more.

The Legislature this year also voted to allow UDOT to use improvement funds for transit and active transportation (biking and walking).

Lastly, UDOT this summer will adopt an updated version of the guide that state transportation departments follow. The new version provides more flexibility and granularity for designing in cities, downtowns, rural towns and suburbs. More importantly, it acknowledges transportation departments’ key goals of moving people, not just cars.

“The primary emphasis in chapter one is saying we have an obligation to move people and not cars,” Goedhart said. “That means we need to focus on vulnerable roadway users and consider those in the designs of our roadway.”

Still, those changes are in line with a whole lot of new road capacity.

The agency is still working on a new highway in west Davis County that will extend the Legacy Parkway. At the same time, it’s working on widening and turning US-89 in eastern Davis County into a freeway, while widening I-15 down the middle of all three.

Some ongoing projects involve adding lanes on Utah County interstates that were widened within the past decade. Long range planning includes plenty more widening. (Here’s a map of all that widening).

These kinds of projects, the agency says, will keep cars moving quickly 25 years from now.

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.