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I-15 Express Lanes Improve Congestion in Northern Utah

by: Larry Bernstein
Commuters expectations for infrastructure are pretty simple: arrive at the destination safely and quickly. So, most infrastructure projects address one or both of these issues. The I-15 Express Lanes project in Northern Utah will focus on speed. However, the project is also expected to help the environment by encouraging a reduction of fossil fuels.

Northern Utah has experienced significant growth that has led to congestion on I-15, south of Ogden. The area is home to Hill Air Force Base, which is the branch’s second largest base in terms of population and geographical size. According to the Base’s website, Hill is, “the largest single-site employer in the state of Utah, with an economic impact of more than $3 billion annually.”

In addition to the Hill Airforce Base, the surrounding communities have also been growing. Because of the increased population in the area, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has been considering the project for some time as an environmental document was started back in 2011, according to Zach Whitney, UDOT’s Senior Communications Manager for Region 1.

Project Parameters
UDOT is extending the I-15 express lanes approximately 10 miles, and the highway will go from six to eight lanes. The project will be an extension of express lanes already in Northern Utah. Upon completion, it will be the state’s longest carpool express lane.

As a result of adding the express lanes, UDOT will also be widening five bridges and adding two new bridges. Improvements and extensions will also be made to on-off ramps. Finally, the project will include concrete panel and pavement replacement. Whitney says it’s expected that, “commuters will have a smoother ride and the additions will make for better traffic flow.”

Keep Traffic Flowing
Because I-15 is a crucial artery in the area, with an average daily traffic amount of approximately 125,000, UDOT is determined to keep it available during the construction. They have committed to keeping all lanes open during daytime hours from Monday through Saturday.

Keeping this promise while also working 24 hours a day, seven days a week is made more challenging since the additional lanes are being constructed on the inside of the highway. One way UDOT is meeting this commitment is by narrowing and shifting lanes.

To help crews work continuously and safely, UDOT has implemented crossover traffic patterns. One lane of traffic will crossover to the opposite side of the freeway and drive against traffic. The crossover lane, which will be protected by a concrete barrier, is in the left lane for through traffic. Over the course of the project, there will be two crossovers operating, one in each direction.

“The crossover lanes will ensure construction is continuous and allow us to maintain the same number of lanes and not reduce capacity,” says Whitney.

Productive Meetings
Construction began on the project in mid-May of 2019. The project was originally scheduled to be completed in the fall of this year, but has been pushed back till the fall of 2021.

For a project of this scope, the original schedule was aggressive, which Whitney says was intentional. “Our schedules are purposely aggressive because that way we can adjust and adapt and still deliver a quality project in a timely manner.” UDOT also sets the pace that way to keep up with demand and need.

While weather is typically the reason a project could be thrown off schedule, that was not the case for the I-15 Express Lanes. The team was able to accomplish a lot during the winter of 2019/2020

Instead, there were some unforeseen conditions with utility relocation. “While you do your best during surveying, you don’t really know what you’ll find till you get in there,” says Whitney.

Whitney credits regular meetings of the project team for enabling the necessary adjustments to happen smoothly. “We meet twice a month, and there’s been good collaboration with all our partners including the utilities,” says Whitney. “Those meetings allowed us to expedite a plan to adapt the schedule.”

The good working relationship also enabled everyone to rapidly get on the same page. Ultimately, the contractor re-adjusted the schedule to focus on other elements of the project while the utility work was being done. This minimized the time that will be added to the original schedule.

Those meetings also focus on the budget. The project, which is being accomplished as a design-bid-build structure, has a $163 million price tag. It’s being financed by a combination of federal and state funds. Despite the added work associated with the utilities, Whitney says, “Overall, we’re within the budget.”

Think and Go Green
When adding capacity, it’s natural to expect this would also lead to more commuters. UDOT is hoping for the opposite.

The express lanes will be HOV lanes. Only drivers with two or more occupants are allowed to use the lanes. “We hope this will encourage people to rethink how they’re traveling,” says Whitney. “We would like to see more people carpool.” The benefit of this, besides reducing congestion, is reducing fossil fuel use and cleaner air.

When the I-15 Express Lanes project in Northern Utah is complete, capacity will have been added and commuters will enjoy a less congested ride. They’ll be able to get to their destination more quickly. And if they use the HOV lanes, it will mean fewer cars on the road.

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