There’s got to be another way out of town or conversely another back into town if you’ve already left.
That’s what the chatter on social media in Tooele County was about a few weeks ago after wildfires shut down the only practical connection between Tooele and Salt Lake counties.
There were renewed cries among the people that live here for the need of another connection between the two places.
The cord that physically ties the two counties together is a narrow neck of four-lane interstate highway with a lake on one side and mountain on the other side. That connection is further complicated by rail lines that run on each side of the highway.
The tie that binds Tooele and Salt Lake counties goes beyond just a physical connection. Statistics speak to the economic and cultural relationship between the counties.
Utah Department of Transportation average annual daily traffic counts put the number of vehicle trips from exit 99 on I-80 to Saddleback Road on state Route 36 at 28,000 in 2014. That number grew to 33,000 in 2019 before dipping to 31,000 in the pandemic year of 2020.
It is generally accepted that most of that traffic is work commuters.
Somewhere between 24,050 and 13,985 Tooele County residents commute outside of the county for their primary job, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Salt Lake County provides work for Tooele County’s workforce. Tooele County provides a workforce to help drive Salt Lake County’s economy.
The constricted opening between the north end of the Oquirrh Mountains and the south end of the Great Salt Lake limits to some extent the possibilities of connecting the Tooele and Salt Lake valleys.
Let’s take a look at the alternative routes in and out of Tooele County along with some progress on solutions.
When events conspire to cause an hours-long back-up, one of the first things Tooele County’s eyes turn to is Middle Canyon, tunnels and routes over or through the mountains.
Recently, a second proposed lowland route to bring state Route 201 directly into Tooele County has also been a popular alternative to I-80’s singular route connecting the two counties.
Other alternative routes via different canyons or double-decker highways have been proposed by commuters tired of frequent delays.
There has also been some clamor for improved public transportation to connect Salt Lake and Tooele counties with the thought that maybe a train connection or express bus might bypass constipated roads.
Usually the last alternative considered is the one that already exists — the end-run on SR-36 south of Tooele City to state Route 73, through Cedar Fort and Eagle Mountain and into the southern reaches of Salt Lake County.
To the untrained eye slapping some asphalt down on Middle Canyon Road to the top of the divide seems like an obvious solution long overlooked.
I have had conversations with local engineers and surveyors that told me if it were that easy it would have been done a long time ago.
To build a standard grade road from where the pavement ends in Middle Canyon to the top of the pass that meets engineering standards for width, grade, drainage, and turning points may be impossible, I have been told.
Ah, but what about the tunnel, isn’t there a tunnel through the mountain already?
Construction started on the Elton Tunnel in 1937. It was completed in 1941. Built to be 11 feet wide — most highway lanes are 12 feet wide — and 12 feet high, the tunnel was used to transport ore from a Salt Lake Valley mine to the Smelter in Tooele.
I’ve been told the tunnel never went all the way through the mountain. It connected with a vertical shaft of a mine on the east side of the mountain.
There was trouble with the tunnel almost from the get-go. A fissure was encountered while digging the tunnel. There were cave-ins that took lives and a lot of water. The tunnel ceased operation in 1947. In the 1950s, the tunnel was deemed unusable due to instability. It was buried in 1976.
The latest feasibility study on connecting Tooele County with Salt Lake and Utah counties through the Oquirrh Mountains was funded by the state Legislature in 2017.
The prefered route would include a two-lane highway with 10-foot shoulders for snow storage, bicyclists and pedestrians, according to the consultants.
The new route would be about 15 miles long from valley floor to valley floor with a 0.9 mile-long tunnel about 4.8 miles up Middle Canyon to maintain a maximum 6% grade, according to the study. The price tag — around $329 million in 2017 dollars.
The Utah Department of Transportation has been focusing their attention on the SR-201 to Tooele County connection.
After looking at 18 alternatives, including double-decker highways and reversible lanes, UDOT presented four alternative solutions to improve the Tooele and Salt Lake County connection in their North East Tooele County Study.
Those solutions were; additional lanes in I-80 with barrier separated lane with a direct connection to SR-36, an SR-201 by-pass with SR-201 lanes parallel to I-80’s lanes and an option of a southbound bypass of most of Lake Point, an extension of SR-201 that runs on the east side of I-80 between I-80 and the railroad, and an extension of I-80 on the east side of the railroad tracks that would run south into Tooele County and rendezvous with SR-36 at Mills Junction.
All four options would include a widening of SR-36 between Village Boulevard and I-80.
But nothing has been funded yet.
A recent Utah Transit Authority study also listed four alternatives for improved transportation between the two valleys using public transport.
The first alternative was “Mixed Flow Express Bus.” It called for buses running on a 30 minute interval only during commute hours with multiple stops on both ends in Tooele City and Salt Lake City, but only two stops between the destinations — at the 2400 North/SR-36 Park and Ride and the Benson Grist Mill Park and Ride.
The second alternative was called “Mixed Flow Express Bus with Limited Stops.” It would be a shorter, faster and therefore better route with fewer stops. It would be an all weekday route with 30 minute service during commute hours. With multiple stops in Salt Lake City, the second alternative’s route would only include two stops in Tooele County along SR-36 at both park and ride lots.
The third alternative takes a step up with “Bus Rapid Transit,” running on the shoulders of I-80 and SR-36, bypassing vehicular congestion. It would offer all-day weekday service with 15 minute intervals during peak commute times.
The fourth alternative involves rail service, FrontRunner style. The route would run from downtown Salt Lake City to “Tooele City North’’ with two stops, one in the Gristmill area and one in the Tooele City north area. It would have all-day weekday service and a 30 minute frequency.
The study called the rail option “the most challenging and expensive service to develop and would likely require decades of planning, coordination and right-of-way preservation ahead of service start.”
And then there is the SR-73 out of Stockton route.The long and winding road through Five-Mile Pass, Cedar Fort, and Eagle Mountain drops you off at the bottom of Salt Lake County where you can start to swim like a fish upstream to your destination Salt Lake County.
The length of this route depends on where in Salt Lake County you are headed — or coming home from.
But for comparison purposes, a trip from Vine and Main in Tooele City to 400 S. State Street in downtown Salt Lake City is 34.2 miles and takes 38 minutes. A trip from Vine and Main to the same destination in downtown Salt Lake City via SR-73 is 77.7 miles and takes one hour and 26 minutes, according to Google maps.
So there you go, next time you get stuck in a pileup on I-80 trying to get back into town, think about what route you prefer and imagine if you wait long enough another route is on the way.