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Average commute in Utah increases

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This is the place for commuters.

Utah, and the Wasatch Front in particular, has become a land of people who live far away from their places of employment and don't mind spending lots of time in their automobiles.

That's the way it looks, at least, according to an analysis of 1980, 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census data conducted by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah.

A recent paper titled "Commuting Patterns in Utah," authored by senior research economist Pamela Perlich, concludes Utah's population growth in the past two decades has had a major impact on traffic patterns.

"This increase in the population and labor force has resulted in significant increases in the number of commuting trips and use of transportation infrastructure in general," the report says.

According to the report, the number of Utahns whose commutes are at least 45 minutes long increased by 83 percent (from 51,685 commuters to 94,577) between 1990 and 2000. That number represents one-tenth of the Utah work force.

Utahns' commutes have increased from an average travel time of 19.3 minutes in 1980 to 21.3 minutes in 2000, according to the report.

And the percentage of Utahns who go from one county to another for work rose from 13.5 percent in 1980 to 16.6 percent in 2000.

New patterns of cross-commuting have been identified as well. About 800 commuters drive from Davis County to Utah County every day. And about 850 commute from Utah County to Davis County.

"All of this makes planning for transportation needs even more challenging," the report says.

You don't have to tell that to the Utah Department of Transportation.

"We've realized growth will occur faster than we could possibly keep up with just through adding capacity to our roads, and commuters play a huge part in that," UDOT spokesman Nile Easton said.

"We know they're adding miles and there's more of them, so there's almost a double-edged sword we're trying to deal with."

In the past five years, UDOT has debuted — and continued to expand — its CommuterLink network of so-called "intelligent transportation" technology.

With variable-message signs, speed sensors, freeway ramp meters, the 511 telephone information line and more than 200 video cameras on roadways throughout the region, CommuterLink makes it possible for emergency crews to respond to traffic incidents immediately.

That helps keep local interstates and highways clear for commuters. And with tools like pager messages alerting them to traffic snarls and real-time traffic cameras viewable on the Web, commuters can inform themselves like never before.

"We're trying to make what we have function better to deliver people to the places they want to go," Easton said. "We're trying to get more information in their hands so when there's an incident, they can get to where they're going quicker."

High-occupancy vehicle lanes, introduced to Utah just three years ago, are another tool for reducing traffic volume — not to mention air pollution — and helping commuters cope.

"The HOV experiment on I-15 has been proven successful," Easton said. "And as time has passed, it's been interesting to watch: The number of vehicles using that has really increased in the last year or so.

"We'll look at expanding that lane into Utah County in the coming months or years."

Despite the increases, Utah commuters still have smaller commutes than the national average. The 21.3-minute average Utah commute is well behind the national average of 25.5 minutes. And in the West, only commuters in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have shorter average commutes.

E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com