It doesn't happen often, but the Utah Department of Transportation actually plans to reduce the number of lanes on a major state thoroughfare, opening up the road so it could potentially be used for bus rapid transit.
UDOT officials decided last week to re-stripe 700 East from eight lanes to six from 400 South to 2100 South. They decided against additional two-lane reduction from 2100 South to 3300 South.
UDOT crews have had to temporarily re-stripe 700 East to six lanes for the summer while they reconstruct the pavement on the state road, something they do about every 15 years. But when the project is finished in August, those two lanes won't be coming back.
Cory Pope, deputy director of UDOT's regional office, said the request for a reduction in lanes came from Salt Lake City.
"When the proposal first came in, intuitively I didn't think a corridor like 700 East could be reduced. It's obviously very important, going into the north Salt Lake area," Pope said. "But after looking at the numbers and going through a pretty thorough analysis, we are convinced that's not going to be a problem."
What that analysis revealed is that daily traffic volume on 700 East, north of 2100 South, is 5 percent to 10 percent less than it was prior to the beginning of the I-15 reconstruction project in 1997. Once the freeway fully re-opened in 2001, UDOT engineers have concluded, some motorists decided to use I-15 for their daily commutes rather than 700 East.
Pope said UDOT has received complaints about the current reduction in lanes on 700 East, with some motorists inquiring whether the change would become permanent. But most of those expressing concern were referring to the roadway south of 2100 South, he said.
The lane to be eliminated on each side of the street actually has been used for parking and for buses during non-peak hours. It is only during rush hours that no-parking restrictions take effect and the lane is open to motorists, Pope said.
He said it will be up to Salt Lake City to determine the use of what will become a 10-to-11-foot shoulder on either side of the road.
Salt Lake City Transportation director Tim Harpst said the city will initially allow residents to use the shoulder to park cars, and it could become a de facto bicycle lane. In the future, however, Harpst said, the Utah Transit Authority is interested in using the extra lane for buses in some version of a bus rapid transit system.
The opportunity to reduce lanes on 700 East presented itself about 18 months ago when UDOT began working with Salt Lake City to add a raised, planted median to 700 East as it passes by Liberty Park between 900 South and 1300 South.
City Council members Nancy Saxton and Jill Remington Love pushed for the median in a effort to beautify the street. Saxton said the additional benefit of reducing the road to six lanes would be welcome since it would slow traffic and afford residents a place to park cars.
"I'm surprised UDOT would be willing to do that, but thank heavens," she said.
Pope said new safety standards would require a wider strip to make the aesthetic improvements the city wanted. That's when the city ask UDOT to consider reducing lanes from 900 South to 1300 South. UDOT's investigation found that made sense for an even longer stretch of the road.
South of 2100 South, UDOT found "that right now six lanes would probably handle the demand, (but) there wasn't a real high comfort level with what we were seeing with the numbers, especially with the new development that's taking place in Sugar House right now and the traffic being generated by I-80," Pope said.
"We will continue to look at that (area south of 2100 South) over the next several years."
UDOT also will watch to make sure 700 East functions properly with fewer lanes available during peak hours between 400 South and 2100 South.
"One of the things that will always be unknown is how Salt Lake City will develop," Pope said. "There are a lot of things going on with the two (downtown) malls and The Gateway, and that type of development will always impact and rearrange our traffic patterns for us. There's a possibility that at some point, 15-20 years down the line, we may have to reconsider what happened here" and re-widen 700 East.