The Transportation Interim Committee met last Wednesday to discuss major road projects and issues throughout the state of Utah. The committee addressed issues in city governments, safety concerns, discussed draft legislation efforts, and received two reports from the Utah Department of Transportation.
UDOT Executive Director, Carlos Braceras, gave an eye-opening look at Utah’s HOV lanes. The report had interesting findings regarding the express lane system, which is the longest continuous “hot lane” system in the country at 62 miles long.
These lanes, which run throughout the Wasatch Front, are mostly used by carpoolers, who make up 62 percent of the overall usage while a mere 15 percent of users have Express Lane passes, which serve as a tolling program which generates money for the state.
Braceras stressed the importance of the HOV lanes, pointing out that the lane is not a “fast lane” per se, although it can move quicker than other lanes during congestion. Speed limits are still enforced in the lane, and the director warned that Utah Highway Patrol will be monitoring the HOV lanes more intensely as the speed limit rises to 70 miles per hour on interstates throughout the Salt Lake Valley in December.
This increased enforcement comes as UDOT tries to also address the biggest complaint about the HOV lane: cheaters; who make up one out of every five Express Lane users. Braceras also announced that UHP will be working to educate people about when use of these lanes is acceptable.
This report was followed by an additional report on the operation and maintenance of state highways, presented by UDOT Deputy Director, Shane Marshall. One of the biggest challenges facing the department is a substantial lack of funding. For level two roads, which receive less than 1,000 cars or 200 trucks per day, it is projected that UDOT will be short $40 million needed to maintain the roads. UDOT also reports it is short an estimated $27 million needed to maintain bridges throughout the state.
But it isn’t just roads and bridges – the agency has 95,000 road signs that require occasional replacement while vehicle and building maintenance looms. UDOT currently has 80 maintenance stations, which house the states snowplows and Marshall warned the committee that the buildings are unable to house all state vehicles, including snowplows, leaving the vehicles exposed to the elements throughout the year.
Marshall would go on to explain that the salt used to keep Utah’s roads clear are hard on all vehicles, including the snowplows that spread it. He said that as salt builds up on the snow plows, they become vulnerable to the weather, and, in turn, UDOT has to replace them more frequently than they would like. In all, each plow costs $250,000 and, last year alone, the agency spent $8 million in repairs.
The Transportation Interim Committee also heard from two Utah mayors regarding transportation issues in their city. Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell and Draper Mayor Troy Walker both gave presentations during the meeting, calling for financial assistance for cities in the state to properly handle transportation related issues.
Caldwell reported that Ogden is paying $3.2 million each year in general road maintenance – a large financial burden for the city. Walker voiced similar concerns, indicating that his city is having a hard time keeping up with the transportation needs due to its rapid growth.
The committee estimates that the state will be $11 billion short in funding to match the needs of cities throughout the state. While nothing has been decided yet, the legislature could entertain the idea of raising taxes nearly $440 million to cover the difference. This could potentially come from user fees, fuel taxes, registration fees, and an increase in local sales tax.
The committee has scheduled a follow up meeting on Wednesday, December 3 in Vernal.