Millcreek Canyon Update – Fall 2021

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Hello Wasatch Backcountry Enthusiasts!

Like many outdoor resources in the Central Wasatch and beyond, the Mill Creek Canyon (MCC) road is seeing some hard wear from high levels of visitation. That heavy usage, coupled with the fact that it was a poorly designed road originally, is why Salt Lake County (SLCo), the US Forest Service, and Millcreek City applied for a Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) grant to upgrade transportation within the canyon.  The applicants identified dozens of different ways that MCC could use upgrades; if they were all done it would have been over $38M and ultimately they were awarded $15.4M in the FLAP grant, plus SLCo  is providing $4.2M in matching funds. These funds are budgeted for phase 1 of the project for improvements to the upper half of the roadway (the section that begins at the winter gate and ends at the Upper Big Water parking area).

The project design will be done by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the work subcontracted.  While many of the proposed improvements make sense, (including improving trailhead parking, eliminating roadside parking for no net change in canyon parking capacity, replacing/renewing bridges, upgrading the slumping and deteriorating road surface), the FHA – using federal highway standards, without regard to the intimate nature of MCC – is planning to widen the road, with a goal of making a 29’ wide paved surface from the winter gate to Elbow Fork (1.4 miles) and a 24’ wide paved surface from Elbow Fork to the Big Water trailhead with 11 ft minimum wide traffic lanes.  They also intend to straighten a few sections and remove vegetation to increase sight lines.

Notably and incredibly, given the way MCC is used by cyclists, the FHA is NOT planning ANY uphill bike lane or shoulder above Elbow Fork.  To put that in perspective, the current lane width varies from about 8 ½ to 11 ft below the Big Water overflow lot, with the average estimated to be about 9 ½ ft. Nine and a half and even 9 ft wide lanes are acceptable in low speed areas like Mill Creek according to traffic engineering sources, but so far the design team has been focused on increasing the lanes to a minimum of 11 feet wide. While the speed limit in the upper portion of the canyon post-project hasn’t been set yet, these changes will all increase the natural speed of cars in the canyon regardless of the speed limit.While public safety and bicycle issues are listed in the project goals, the engineers have concluded that there will not be room for an official 5’ wide bike lane or even a 3’ wide shoulder in the top 3.6 miles of the canyon. Increasing vehicle speeds in the canyon and removing any shoulder for non-motorized use would be a huge step backwards for cyclist safety and enjoyment, even though cyclists make up a large user group. The project designers have made no commitment to taking steps to protect non-motorized roadway space and in fact have made the claim that wider lanes and higher speeds will somehow increase the safety of non-motorized users without providing any rationale or evidence.   In fact, targeted narrowing of lanes – ala what UDOT did last season in Alta Central with a new island – is a proven way to keep auto speeds down.

If you use Mill Creek Canyon and are concerned about increasing vehicle speeds and decreasing space for those who ride, walk, and run in the canyon, you have to until December 9 to submit comments describing the changes you would like to see in the Canyon. The project design team needs to hear from you. Some points to bring up in your comments:

  • Studies show that increasing lane width increases speed at which motorists feel comfortable driving. Conversely, decreasing lane width has been clearly shown to reduce vehicle speeds.
  • Increasing vehicle speed without providing at least a 4’ uphill bike lane or shoulder will greatly increase the likelihood and severity of collisions between cars and bikes and pedestrians.
  • Even adding a 3’ striped shoulder and adjusting lane width accordingly would make Mill Creek Canyon safer for non-motorized users.
  • Wide lane advocates claim they are needed for emergency vehicle access. Not so, says Unified Fire Authority and Salt Lake County Search and Rescue leaders. And since the maximum width of emergency vehicles is 8 ½ feet, are 11 or even 12 foot lanes really needed?
  • The speed limit in the upper canyon should be no more than 25 mph.

Additionally, the FHA has indicated that this major work project in a fragile ecosystem and watershed is not dramatic enough to warrant a NEPA process, and instead would treat it as a Categorical Exclusion, which requires a far lesser level of scrutiny, no environmental assessment, was intended for minor changes like restriping, and does not require an official public comment period once the design gets closer to finalization.  This decision is at their discretion.

Now is the time to voice your opinions about this plan. Plans for the road are being developed and the planners are – at this point –  listening to canyon users. The public comment period ends on December 9. You can learn more and find a link to a comment form at the project website. Comments can also be emailed to Comments should also be sent directly to the US Forest Service Salt Lake Ranger District and the mayors and council members of Salt Lake County and Millcreek city (Google them).

If you use and value Mill Creek Canyon and have an opinion on the future of non-motorized use of the canyon road, it’s important that you speak up before December 9th – change is coming to our beloved Mill Creek and the opportunity to voice your thoughts/desires/opinions will not last much longer.

Member Meeting and BCFF Salt Lake Showing!

  • BCFF Salt Lake showing 12/2 at Fisher Brewing from 6-9pm (21+) in the outdoor courtyard.
  • Member Meeting 12/8 from 6-7:30pm (virtual via Zoom)

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