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Safety measures praised in reducing accidents, deaths on U.S. 6

Utah highway once ranked among the nation's deadliest

SPANISH FORK — Since losing her mother in a 1971 crash on a winding, Spanish Fork Canyon stretch of U.S. 6, Kathy Justice has been lobbying for improvements on the highway that has been the site of many deaths.

The Huntington resident founded a group seeking a safer U.S. 6 that pushed lawmakers to fund improvements.

Today, Justice says she's pleased with changes made to the highway to make it safer. But there's still work to be done, she said.

"They still need to do the Red Narrows," Justice said, referring to a particularly dangerous section of U.S. 6 sandwiched between canyon cliffs, the Price River and a railroad line. "That's where my mother was killed."

Progress, however, is being made.

"I was told I'd never see four lanes on that highway in my lifetime," she said last week, just days after she drove on the newly completed stretches of four-lane highway.

"They have a ways to go," Justice said. "We'll keep it in (state legislators') minds."

Spanish Fork police have investigated their share of fatalities on U.S. 6 over the years.

"At one point, half of all Utah deaths were on U.S. 6 between Spanish Fork and Price," Spanish Fork Police Lt. Carl Johnson said.

That was about 10 years ago, before the Utah Department of Transportation started on an extended project to make U.S. 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon safer, said Scott Thompson, a UDOT spokesman.

"There's definitely been a reduction (in crashes), particularly in the number of semis crashing into each other," Johnson said. "They should have done the improvements sooner."

Spanish Fork emergency crews are among those who respond to accidents in the canyon. Many of the accidents have been horrific. In one crash Johnson recalled, a semi sheared the top off a passenger vehicle, killing an entire family.

Now, UDOT has taken steps to greatly reduce crossover head-on collisions. Recent statistics show that while six people died on the picturesque roadway last year, 16 died midway through the project in 2005. Collisions and single-vehicle accidents in 1997 killed 23 people.

In August 2005, a semitrailer filled with 38,000 pounds of explosives rolled on a sharp curve at the Red Narrows and exploded, creating a 30-foot-deep crater in the highway, damaging nearby railroad tracks and injuring 10 other motorists.

UDOT filled in the hole and repaved it, but the curve is still there, Thompson said. Signs caution motorists to slow down.

The canyon highway had the dubious reputation of being one of the six most dangerous in America before work crews started tearing up the roadway to add lanes, bridges and rumble strips. Crews also straightened out curves from I-15 to Soldier Creek, a distance of less than 30 miles.

Within Spanish Fork, four new traffic signals on U.S. 6 have served to slow motorists and reduce accidents and fatalities, Johnson said.

The total bill came to $89.8 million, including a planned two-mile, $14 million widening project from milepost 195 to 197 near the Red Narrows, according to cost figures obtained from UDOT. Capacity improvements alone totaled $68.4 million.

The project included widening U.S. 6 from I-15 to Moark Junction and adding several miles of passing lanes. The most expensive project was replacing a bridge for $26.5 million at milepost 200, north of the old Tucker rest area.

UDOT contractors rehabilitated the road at Billies Mountain and the lower canyon road to its junction with the Diamond Fork Road, along with culvert replacement and other rehabilitation and maintenance for $17.8 million. Then it added some safety features, including rumble strips, traffic signals and signs for another $3.6 million.

Region 4 picked up the project from the county line and continued it into Price. The most recent projects in that region include an improved access to Skyline Drive toward the Scofield recreation area, where the Tucker rest stop had been. That access has a middle turn lane, acceleration lanes and deceleration lanes.

The Tucker rest area is being moved to about milepost 202, with a schedule completion date in July.

UDOT also widened the highway to five lanes from the White River, through Colton to just short of Emma Park, said project manager Daryly Friant.

Other construction work over the past decade takes U.S. 6 from the newly constructed Helper interchange to Price with four lanes.

e-mail: rodger@desnews.com