Transportation Expo recap: Here’s what you can expect for the future of getting around Washington County

ST. GEORGE — From showcasing the potential of autonomous vehicles to highlighting proposed improvements to state Route 9 and expanding SunTran bus service into Washington City, the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo highlighted what the public can expect concerning current upcoming transportation projects set across the county.

St. George Mayor Jon Pike speaks at the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo during an introduction of the Easy Ride autonomous shuttle being highlighted at the expo, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Andrew Pickney, St. George News

Easy Ride autonomous shuttle demonstration

The transportation expo opened Tuesday morning at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George with the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority and local civic officials giving the public a glimpse at the potential for self-driving, autonomous vehicles.

At first glance, the autonomous shuttle may look more like a trailer with its boxy design and no spot for a driver inside. Instead, there are three seats on the front and back of the shuttle, with room for about four to five people standing in the middle.

The shuttle took passengers on a silent, electric-powered ride in the area of the convention center as it followed a programmed route. A UDOT “safety officer” was on board to help react to any issues that were usually caused by other drivers on the road.

“I really liked it,” Ivins resident Dan Brown said after taking a ride on the shuttle. “I see a lot of need for it. I can’t wait to see more of them.”

Brown added he would encourage others to ride on such shuttles, seeing as “there are a lot of drivers around here who can’t drive.”

Members of the public disembark an autonomous, self-driving shuttle showcased at the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The shuttle, which is the product of French-based Easy Mile, is on loan to UDOT for a year so it can be taken across the state for such demonstrations. UDOT and UTA officials said they want to gauge the public’s reaction and comfort – or lack thereof – with an autonomous vehicle.

“We want to get it out there so people can see what its capable of doing and also what it can’t do,” said Chris Siavrakas, a project manager for UDOT. “People around here have been very excited about it.”

Possible applications an autonomous shuttle included being used as a way to traverse large medical or university campuses or commercial centers.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the autonomous shuttle and take a ride can still do so at the Dixie Center until Thursday at 5 p.m. UDOT officials will be on hand to answer questions about the vehicle and its potential uses.

UDOT projects in Washington County

At the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

One of UDOT’s major projects set to begin this month is the final stretch of the state Route 7, better known as the Southern Parkway. The $75.5 million project will connect the Southern Parkway to SR-9 at 2700 West. The Southern Parkway currently stops at Sand Hollow Road and indirectly connects to SR-9 through that roadway.

The final 8-mile stretch of road completing the Southern Parkway will run from the intersection with Sand Hollow Road and go around the eastern side of the Sand Hollow Reservoir and directly connect with SR-9.

Four new interchanges will also be built along the Southern Parkway at Sand Hollow Road, the approximate area of 3200 West, 3000 West and SR-9.

The last leg of the Southern Parkway is estimated to take up to 14 month and wrap up by spring 2021.

Kevin Kitchen, a spokesman for UDOT, said another project that could possibly be considered an additional phase of the Southern Parkway focuses on the first 6 1/2 miles of SR-9 from Exit 16 to the general area of where it will connect with the Southern Parkway.

At the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“SR-9 is a high priority corridor for us in Washington County,” he said. “We know we’ve got a lot of traffic headed to Zion (National Park) and we have a lot of development happening all throughout the county.”

Identified as the SR-9 Improved project, it is currently in an environmental study phase where public input is being encouraged. A public house on the project is also being held at the Hurricane Community Center, 53 S. 100 West on Feb. 25 from 5-7 p.m.

The SR-9 project will add an additional lane to both sides of the roadway in order to create express ways allowing for more efficient and safe travel to and from Interstate 15. The overall goal with SR-9 and the Southern Parkway is to create a beltway between I-15 Exits 2 and 16, UDOT project manager Kim Manwill said.

Additional improvements involve the creation of interchanges in place of intersections on SR-9. Access to communities along the road would be diverted to one of these interchanges on newly built frontage roads, Manwill said.

At the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The environmental study process and a final decision on SR-9’s design is anticipated to be released by mid-summer.

Additional information on the SR-9 project can be found on the SR-9 Improved website.

UDOT also plans to resurface part of I-15 in the Black Ridge area north of Anderson Junction/Exit 27 where there were numerous semi crashes late last year due to slick road conditions.

The new surface UDOT plans to put on this part of I-15 is designed to help get more of the rain water off the road, Kitchen said.

Additionally, in the next 10-20 years, the interchange at Exit 4 in St. George, also known as the Bloomington Exit, will be reconfigured. I-15 north of the Green Springs/Exit 10 interchange will also be widened to three lanes, and a reconfiguration of the Anderson Junction/Exit 27 interchange is also being considered.

“These are all potentials,” Kitchen said. “They don’t necessarily have funding yet, but they are the types of things we’re looking at long term range on I-15 that I think are significant.”

St. George

At the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“Next year we want to finally get the infamous Commerce Drive done,” Cameron Cutler, public works director for St. George, said with a laugh.

Finishing Commerce Road has been in the works for a long while. Once completed, the road will cross the Ft. Pierce Wash and connect to Little Valley Road.

There are also plans to potentially tie Commerce Drive into the same corridor as 3000 East, Cutler said.

There are also several new traffic signals being placed in St. George in the near future. Among them are the intersections of 1400 West and Snow Canyon Drive, Sunset Boulevard and Tuweap Drive, and Riverside and Morningside drives by Heritage Elementary.

A roundabout is also planned for 2000 North and Snow Canyon Parkway, as is a realignment of 1650 South to 3650 South where the new Latter-day Saint temple site is.

Coming in either the spring or fall of 2020 will be the widening of River Road between Riverside Drive and 1450 South. This will also involve the widening of the bridge spanning the Virgin River. The project could take between nine months and a year to complete once started.

At the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

There are no major projects in store the for St. George Regional Airport beyond continuing maintenance work on parts of the runway, Airport Manager Richard Stehmeier said, though he added that seven new hangers had been added to the airport by various companies.

However, future projects between now and 2025 include expanding the airport’s terminal ramp and overall terminal. Discussion on flight destinations also continues, Stehmeier said, adding that some possibilities include San Francisco and Seattle.

The expansion of a new SunTran route into Washington City was also highlighted. Efforts to bring SunTran into Washington City reach back nearly a decade and have finally been made possible thanks to the county’s implementing a local sales tax dedicated to transportation and public transit.

It was originally thought the new route wouldn’t start until spring 2021 due to bus orders taking up to 14 months to fulfill. However, the new route is expected to begin around April, as the city of St. George already had a bus on hand that could be dedicated to the new route.

“It’s exciting to have this new route,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said.

The route will start at the bus stop in front of Deseret Industries and proceed to loop through Washington City.

A map of the new SunTran bus route in Washington City shown at the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Pike also reiterated a previous announcement that the city was offering free rides on SunTran buses for three months starting March 1.

“We want people to get on it and try it and let us know how they liked it,” Pike said. “We want to hear from people.”

Washington City

In addition to the new SunTran route, Washington City’s public works director Mike Shaw said work on Merrill Road connecting Washington Fields Road and Mall Drive was complete.

“We’re planning on opening that road Thursday morning,” Shaw said.

The next big road project is the extension of Washington Parkway from the Exit 13 interchange to Green Springs Drive. While the extension will provide an additional access point for the Green Springs community, Shaw said it is also hoped it will take some of the pressure off the Exit 10/Green Springs interchange.

At the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Work has begun on the Main Street Flood Control Project in downtown Washington City and is anticipated to wrap up by mid-summer. The center of the road is being inverted to collect rain water better so it doesn’t flood and spread into homes as happened in 2018.

Part of the Main Street project also includes the addition of traffic-calming measures, bike lanes and beautification efforts.

Additional Washington City transportation projects include work on 3650 East that will connect Washington Fields Road to the Southern Parkway, as well as a new traffic signal at Washington Parkway and Telegraph Street.

Ivins

Ivins is currently in the middle of updating its transportation master plan and also working on improvements to the portion of Old Highway 91 that passes through the city.

The city plans to reconstruct the highway due to surface deterioration brought on by age, Ivins’ city engineer and public works director Charles Gillette said.

“The road’s pretty rough, it’s an old road,” he said “That asphalt’s getting deteriorated.”

At the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Improvements made during the reconstruction will include widening the road with 7-foot bicycle lanes, as well as changes to intersections along the highway with acceleration and deceleration lanes. A shared trail will also be added along the roadway that will reach from 200 East to Fire Lake Park.

The estimated $4 million-$5 million project is currently in the design phase, with work anticipated to start in early 2021 and end around October the same year.

Santa Clara

This year’s transportation highlight from Santa Clara was its work on a new bridge over the Santa Clara River providing additional access to the south side of the city. Construction of the new bridge was prompted by growth in that area, which includes the Hills and Sycamores developments.

Toquerville

Toquerville was represented for possibly the first time at the transportation expo as City Councilman Keen Ellsworth shared plans for a new bypass that would move increasingly heavy visitor traffic away from the small town.

Toquerville City Councilman Keen Ellsworth points to the existing SR-17/Toquerville Road (in black) and an incoming bypass (in orange) at the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo held at the Dixie Center, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“As it stands now, the traffic levels are so high it’s ruining our little community,” Ellsworth said. “That traffic is coming through Toquerville (and) we’re bearing the burden without the benefit.”

The road that passes through Toquerville is designated as state Route 17, also known as Toquerville Road. It begins in LaVerkin and connects to I-15 at the Anderson Junction/Exit 27 interchange. Parts of the route north of Toquerville can be rather windy, which is creates safety concerns, Ellsworth said.

The new route that Toquerville proposes to build as the new SR-17 will bypass the small town completely and also provide a much safer and less winding route for travelers heading to Zion National Park and other parts of the eastern side of the county.

The new roadway will also be engineered to accommodate a much larger volume of traffic.

“It’s not wise to put that much traffic on the existing SR-17,” Ellsworth said.

The roadway is estimated to cost roughly $10 million and will initially be a two-lane road. After the new roadway is completed, Ellsworth said the city plans to hand the road over to UDOT, which he hopes will eventually widen it to five lanes.

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