Utah communities begin work on 'historic effort' to improve road safety, curb traffic deaths
Ivan Marrero started reading off a list of headlines as other local, private, state and federal representatives gathered in a room and online for a roundtable discussion on transportation safety Monday afternoon.
There was a crash that closed Big Cottonwood Canyon, a bicyclist killed after being struck by a train and several stories about fatal vehicle crashes or pedestrians struck and killed by vehicles. All of these incidents happened over the past few weeks, said Marrero, the Utah division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration.
Multimodal transportation crashes, several people in the meeting explained, have a major impact on individual lives, communities and even the economy. They've also been on the rise, especially over the past two years, which is why elected leaders and transportation experts are trying to find new ways to combat the problem.
"It's not just about trying to stop accidents, it's trying to stop things from impacting our society for many, many, many years," said Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson, referencing the impacts of fatal crashes.
The U.S. Department of Transportation doled out $800 million through the Safe Streets and Roads for All Grant Program in Feburary, including $3.2 million toward six Utah communities, in one of the latest steps in trying to reverse recent trends.
Robin Hutcheson, a former Salt Lake City transportation official and current administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, called it the beginning of a "historic effort" to make roads safer. More funds are expected to be provided over the next four years from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021.
"This was needed," she said. "The influx of grant applications is very strong from across the country, so there's a lot of demand and really looking forward to seeing all the plans that come out of this first round."
Responding to the increase in traffic deaths
The Federal Highway Administration estimated that 42,915 people died on U.S. roads in 2021, a 16-year high. The agency is still finishing up its 2022 estimates; however, it released preliminary data earlier this year showing that 31,785 died on roads by the end of September 2022, only a 0.2% decline from the same point in 2021.
Utah experienced similar trends. Over 300 people died on Utah roads both in 2021 and 2022, the first time that had happened in two decades. The Utah and U.S. trends also pointed to upticks in pedestrian and bicycled-related deaths, as well as children under 16 years old.
The new federal program aims to reverse these trends, joining efforts already put in place by local and state governments. The $3.2 million given to Utah will be spent on comprehensive safety action plans along the Wasatch Front, in the Cache Valley, as well as communities in southern and eastern Utah.
A little more than $750,000 of that is headed to the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which hosted Monday's round table discussion on the program. A spokesperson for the council explained that the action plans serve as the first step before developing projects that specifically seek to reduce traffic crashes. The meeting was meant to get all communities and transportation experts in the state on the same page on how to develop a plan and utilize the new federal program.
"It's a key beginning for the group to come together and better understand the process for our communitywide safety plan," said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. "We want to see fewer deaths (and) we want to see safer streets. We also want to reduce pedestrians and bicycles in our communities."
What local governments have in mind
Some safety efforts are already happening in Utah. Salt Lake City, for example, reduced its speed limit on residential streets to 20 mph last year in an effort to reduce severe injuries and deaths, especially in auto-pedestrian crashes. The city also took the first steps to join Vision Zero earlier this year, a national network of cities that are looking for solutions to traffic deaths.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall added that the city has several other ideas either happening or on the table. These include more protected bike lanes, crosswalk enhancements, protected left-hand turns and traffic calming measures as a part of the city's "appropriately ambitious" goal of zero traffic fatalities, the mayor explained.
The city is in the process of redesigning its pedestrian signals to give people in crosswalks a few seconds' head start over green lights so that they are more noticeable in crosswalks. It is also scheduled to complete a new pedestrian bridge along 300 North so that residents and West High students have a safe way to cross the railroad tracks near 500 West, which is sometimes blocked by trains.
"We have to go outside of the box," Mendenhall said. "We have to be willing to fund and, from a political perspective, go beyond and think creatively. I love that we have the Vision Zero Network to tap into. We also have this opportunity of future grant funds that can help do the implementation."
Meanwhile, the Utah Legislature approved $90 million toward more active transportation projects for the 2024 fiscal year, which aims to link regional trails together. Utah Department of Transportation officials say that the trails can improve safety by reducing the amount of road that bicyclists and pedestrians share, while still getting them to their desired destinations.
A comprehensive safety action seeks to identify comparable projects in other parts of the county and state, Wilson explained. It will also help communities figure out ways to get those ideas funded.
It's too early to know what specific projects will come out of the new federal program; however, local leaders are hopeful that it will help them in their goal to reduce deaths and other impacts caused by transportation crashes.
"This particular issue is on everyone's minds," Wilson said, pointing to all the recent crashes in Utah that Marrero read off in the meeting. "I think that this is a challenge (for) all of us who commute, who move around in any way, shape or form."