No one else could have described the predicament more clearly:
“This is a serious problem,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville. “It’s important to all of the residents. The commuter problem affects our livelihood, it affects the time with our families, it affects our activity time after work, and most importantly, it affects our safety as we travel back and forth through that dangerous stretch of road.”
What Nelson was referring to is the commuter traffic bottleneck of state Route 36 and Interstate 80 at Lake Point, and commuters’ heavy reliance on I-80 and SR-201 to drive to and from the Wasatch Front for work. His words were offered during opening remarks at an informational meeting he organized between the Utah Department of Transportation and local citizens at Stansbury High School on Feb. 1.
Nelson’s words clearly defined the problem, but the purpose of the meeting was made even more clear before it even began: UDOT officials who were scheduled to attend and make a presentation were delayed from Salt Lake for nearly 30 minutes because — you guessed it — an accident forced evening commuter traffic to a crawl on I-80.
UDOT officials at the meeting, including executive director Carlos Braceras, reviewed past and future projects intended to reduce commuter congestion and increase safety. What’s to come is the $74.4 million phase one of the Midvalley Highway in 2019, and this year’s replacement and expansion of bridges at Lake Point’s Exit 99 and at Black Rock two miles to the east on I-80.
To help minimize anticipated congestion from those two projects, UDOT plans to build both new bridges next to the existing bridges. And both new bridges are reportedly designed to carry extra traffic capacity.
Which sounds fine and good. But if there was a takeaway from the Feb. 1 meeting, it was this: UDOT’s current plans will only help reduce traffic congestion and improve safety — but commuters shouldn’t expect clear sailing after Midvalley Highway’s phase one and the bridges at Lake Point and Black Rock have been replaced. Because Tooele Valley’s population is growing and is projected to continue, which means more commuters and general traffic than today, everyone should continue to plan on long delays on SR-36, I-80 and state Route 138.
And traffic congestion and delays may likely continue, even if the state pushes forward with an auxiliary lane on I-80 between Lake Point and Black Rock, and an SR-201 extension from Black Rock directly to SR-36 in Lake Point. Neither of those projects are currently funded and the projected cost of the SR-201 extension is $200 million.
Yet, even though such projects may not fully alleviate congestion woes, the state must continually work toward improving traffic flows between Tooele and Salt Lake valleys. That work will likely take on even more importance after the Utah State Prison is finished, and as business parks west of Salt Lake International Airport continue their march toward the Great Salt Lake.
Those facilities will employ thousands, many of whom may choose to live in Tooele Valley, further adding to commuter congestion. Unless the state acts purposefully on this problem with solid funding, relief may never arrive.