SALT LAKE CITY — With more than 2.3 million Intermountain West residents expected to be on the roads this weekend, local agencies are asking drivers to be aware of road conditions before getting behind the wheel and driving safely once they are en route.
If it isn't construction causing delays, it will be weather concerns, officials warn, as snow still remains on many of Utah's seasonal highways that are typically open at this time of the year.
"Extremely deep snow and ice have persisted at levels not seen in many years," Kris Peterson, a regional director for the Utah Department of Transportation, said. "In some places, drifts across the roads are still 25 to 30 feet deep."
He said some of the deepest snowfall levels in decades have left many routes, including the Monte Cristo, Mirror Lake and Big Mountain highways, as well as the Alpine Loop and Guardsman Pass, and surrounding terrain covered with deep snow and packed ice, which is not only very difficult to remove, but hard on the equipment used to perform that work.
"We empathize with the many Utahns who had hoped to use these routes to reach their favorite Memorial Day weekend recreation spots," Peterson said. "We're hoping that, with some cooperation from the weather in the coming weeks, we'll be able to have these routes open by mid- to late June."
Plans could quickly be derailed if the timing isn't just right, as a big chunk of I-15 in Utah County will be rendered useless throughout the weekend. Crews won't be working, but drivers will witness the usual construction-style narrowed lanes, orange barrels and cones and decreased speed limits of 55 mph.
UDOT is expecting one- to two-hour delays during peak travel times throughout the weekend, between Lehi and Spanish Fork. Spokeswoman Tania Mashburn said to avoid the area after 2 p.m. on Monday.
I-84, at Taggart in Morgan County, is currently reduced to one lane in each direction, which may also cause congestion this weekend. Large trucks and 90-foot-plus trailer lengths are prohibited in the area.
Construction delays are not expected in southern Utah, for those traveling to places like Zion National Park and Lake Powell. However, lanes are narrowed on I-15 in Washington County and over the Santa Clara River south of St. George. For travel to that area, UDOT suggests leaving a day earlier or staying a day later to avoid peak travel times and delays.
The agency is teaming up with the Utah Office of Tourism to offer various discounts to travelers who take that route, extending vacations to avoid traffic. The "Stay an Extra Day" campaign reduced traffic on heavy days last summer by more than 5 percent, according to Robert Clayton, UDOT Traffic Management Division director.
"We're hoping for similar success during this construction season," he said.
According to UDOT traffic statistics, the heaviest travel days surrounding summer holiday weekends are the Friday before and Monday after, with Friday showing the greatest congestion. The time of day also influences the duration of the delays.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers will be hitting the road along with all the road-trippers, watching for aggressive drivers, drunk drivers and people not wearing their seat belts.
"The weather is warmer, speeds start to increase, people start to be lazy," said UHP trooper Jason Hunter. Memorial Day weekend, he said, is one of the busiest for them and it really helps when drivers do their part and be responsible.
"Watch your speed and be courteous to other drivers on the road," Hunter said.
As far as alternate forms of transportation go, the Utah Transit Authority has posted notices that bus, train and rail service will be closed Monday, but will reopen Tuesday, at the regular schedule.
For more information about construction activities throughout the state, visit www.udot.utah.gov and click on the "Know Where, Know Why" tab.
Contributing: Shara Park