When the weather this fall starts to get too cold for most tourists, it could become just right for state transportation officials who are eager to get started on long-awaited plans to widen North Main Street.
Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) representative Ryan Anderson told the Moab City Council this week that preliminary work to expand the roadway from two to four travel lanes could get under way before year’s end.
“I think realistically, we could potentially see contractors on the ground in mid-November,” Anderson said during a council workshop on Tuesday, May 28.
UDOT previously set aside $14 million for design and construction work on the project, and Anderson said the department is hoping to put it out to bid in August.
The project will widen the roadway that is also known as U.S. Highway 191 from the point where it currently narrows near the Hampton Inn to the intersection with state Route 128 near the Colorado River.
It also aims to help reduce the potential for flooding along the roadway, particularly in the area just below Stewart Canyon. Previous drainage studies have identified the need to build a detention basin in the Stewart Canyon area, where a large pipe would carry stormwater away from a flood-prone stretch of the roadway near Cermak Street.
If everything goes according to plan — and the weather cooperates — Anderson said the project could be completed in one year. However, right-of-way acquisition is “definitely” a major issue that the department still has to address, he said.
“We’ve got to get the right-of-way in place before we can work,” he said. “… We may bid the project, with the caveat that they can’t do the work until the right-of-way is acquired … We don’t love to do that; we’d like to get the right-of-way done ahead of schedule, but sometimes, that just doesn’t work, for one reason or another.”
Anderson came to the council for its suggestions on a project timeline that could minimize the inevitable construction-related impacts on Moab’s busy tourist season as much as possible.
Moab City Council member Kalen Jones said there “might be more nuance” to the dates, telling Anderson that late March could be just as problematic as April, depending on the year.
“But in general, having more intense construction during the winter may be worth it to shorten the construction period, I think,” Jones said.
However, Anderson noted that wintertime work comes with major limitations.
First and foremost, he said, asphalt won’t hold up under cold temperatures, so contractors can’t pave during the winter months. Typically, he said, it has to be 50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer before they’re able to do so.
Throughout much of UDOT’s jurisdiction, the paving season runs from April 15 to Oct. 15, and while the climate in Moab tends to be milder, Anderson said the weather can be “a little iffy,” as this spring demonstrated.
“If we were to have a repeat of this year, next year, any type of early paving would be probably pretty unlikely,” Anderson said. “But if we were to have a warm spring ... where maybe in February we have 50 degrees and rising and it looks to be that we’re going to have a lot of that for contiguous segments of time, there’s a possibility that the region materials engineer can allow the contractor to pave early — earlier — based on circumstances.”
On the upside, he said, some piping contractors typically don’t have much work lined up during the colder months of any given year.
“So we could potentially get a contractor that has a lot of piping crews that could come down here and focus their efforts in Moab, because they don’t have a lot of other areas in the state that they can be working,” he said.
During that time, he said, they could potentially get much of the storm-drain system in place — a time-consuming process that could be “kind of a disaster” if contractors attempted to do it as Moab’s tourist season kicks into high gear in April.
To keep the project running smoothly, Anderson suggested that night work would be preferable: Traffic dies down at night, and crews could set up flagging operations — while moving materials from one location to another — without impacting nearly as many people.
On the other hand, he said, nighttime work could be a “little bit problematic” because construction activities can be noisy.
“There’s kind of a tradeoff, right?” he said. “We’re always either going to be impacting the traveling public, or we’re going to be impacting — potentially, we’re going to be impacting businesses.”
Anderson said he wishes that UDOT could find a way to implement a construction schedule that wouldn’t impact travelers or local business owners. But ultimately, he doesn’t think that’s possible.
“There’s always going to be a give-and-take of, here’s how we can impact the traveling public less,” he said. “It’s kind of that whole attitude of, you have a Band-Aid: Do you rip it off, or do you pull it off slowly? In some cases, pull it off slowly, but sometimes, you might just have to rip it off and get it over with.”
Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said she believed the best times to rip off that “Band-Aid” would be during the July-August dip in visitation, or prior to April 15.
“I think zooming out, this community is ready for 191 to be widened, and for us to have four lanes — two coming in, and two leaving,” Niehaus said. “We felt the congestion this year, and we’ve had a lot of public comments about it, so I think it’s safe to say we are willing to get through this construction project because we’re ready for the four lanes.”
Moab City Council member Rani Derasary questioned how a nighttime schedule might affect the project’s local neighbors.
“My first concern about nighttime (construction work) would be just the residents who live closest … to the project,” she said.
Niehaus said the majority of the road-widening project will be located farther away from residential areas, although there is a neighborhood where residents have raised concerns about noise-related impacts from idling trucks.
A city noise ordinance is currently in place, so in order to perform any work at night, Anderson said the project team will have to obtain the city’s prior approval. In addition, he said the project team could implement nighttime restrictions on construction-related activities that cause vibrations.
“Of course, that would limit some of the stuff that they can do, and maybe we would want to limit that in those more concerning areas,” he said.
Overall, he said he anticipates that the department could follow the lessons it’s learned elsewhere around Utah.
“We believe we can come up with some good, good limitations that would protect everyone as much as possible in this area,” he told the council. “So if you guys are willing to let us do that, we will look at that, and then we’ll just basically come to you guys with those ideas.”
PARKING STRUCTURE AGREEMENT WON’T AFFECT MAIN STREET SPACES
In an unrelated action, the council voted 4-0 to approve an agreement with UDOT that sets the stage for the planned construction of a four-level, 320-space parking structure in downtown Moab. Council member Mike Duncan was absent from the meeting.
Moab City Manager Joel Linares said the agreement would not require any parking spaces to be removed from Main Street. But in response to concerns that it could do just that, council member Karen Guzman-Newton’s motion specifically states that the expenditure of any remaining funds “shall” require the council’s approval.
Linares told the council that the agreement benefits the city considerably.
It has little funding left over to pursue the project on its own, but under the agreement, UDOT will give the city a lump-sum payment of $8.3 million up front, and the city will generate interest on that funding over the course of two years.
According to the project agreement, the structure will be built on city-owned land located mid-block between 100 North and Center Street.
Current plans call for three above-ground levels and one below-ground level, although city officials have voiced concerns that a below-ground level could be unfeasible, due to groundwater levels, or the presence of nearby utilities. If the structure has to be reduced to three levels, the agreement says, plans for 320 stalls may not be feasible.
The plans also require a minor right-of-way acquisition, and while it appears that the property owner is agreeable to a land transfer, UDOT says the proposed number of parking spaces could be reduced if that acquisition fell through.
Derasary said she’s heard interesting ideas about the project, and she hoped that city officials can help educate residents about how they can become involved in its design.
“I think some residents have some reservations that they’re just going to see a big, tall box that does further disruption to our viewshed,” she said.
Moving forward, Linares said the city can work to form a citizens advisory committee that helps officials with the design of a structure that will add “something” to downtown, as opposed to Soviet-style “Brutalist” architecture.
“We definitely don’t want to build a concrete — what we call a Chernobyl — parking structure,” Linares said. “We want it to be cool and add something to the community — not just a parking space. We’ve been looking at different designs, different rooftop designs (and) different feasible spaces for other than just parking — they can also be a space that’s used for gatherings and stuff, as well.”