GARDEN CITY — Last year, the state finished a $5 million safety project on U.S. 89, intent on putting an end to a runaway truck problem that had been plaguing the Northern Utah section of the highway.
And while officials from the Utah Department of Transportation say the measure is working, they have some additional plans for a follow-up piece of construction that will make the area even safer.
The Utah Transportation Commission recently approved a $1.2 million project to widen U.S. 89 at a spot in Logan Canyon, west of where an escape truck ramp was completed in the fall. Ivan Hartle, UDOT's director of financial programming, said the widening will facilitate a new, mandatory truck brake check lane above the area where "recent truck run-off-the-road events" have happened.
Hartle said the new brake check area will provide operators of large trucks a safe spot to do a maintenance check of their vehicle prior to the descent into Garden City. Hartle said the project is being funded with Federal Highway Safety Improvement Program dollars.
During the past two years, the area has seen a rise in large semitrucks losing control in the canyon, resulting in some rather calamitous crashes. According to UDOT, there have been three serious crashes at the location since late 2018. Toward the end of that year, a semi truck driver was killed when his truck crashed into a sporting goods store. Then, in August 2019, two large semitrucks crashed in the area within a week of each other. Injuries in both crashes were minor, but the vehicles were totaled and storage buildings nearby were damaged.
In October of last year, UDOT finished a ramp in the area that features a "catch net" cable system that uses a series of cable nets to stop runaway semitrucks, where the cables wrap around out-of-control vehicles, causing them to lose speed and eventually stop. The project also included a concrete apron that guides runaway vehicles into the optimal position to meet the cable barrier system and stop momentum.
According to UDOT traffic statistics, at about 2,500 vehicles per day, the area on U.S. 89 carries about 25% more traffic today than it did 20 years ago. The section of road is heavily used by Northern Utah recreation enthusiasts traveling into Garden City and the Bear Lake area. The ramp is on the last hill coming out of the canyon, just before motorists reach Garden City.
But UDOT says the runaway ramp should be a last resort and drivers should make sure their vehicles are in proper working order before venturing down the canyon. UDOT officials say this is where the new project comes in.
"There was a feeling that many truckers, after that first set of hills and turns, think they're done and they're fine," said UDOT Region One Director Rob Wight. "But there are still some pretty serious grades."
Once completed, Wight said, the brake check area will be mandatory for drivers of large semitrucks. He said a "large, black and white regulatory" sign will signal to truck drivers that they need to stop before descending.
"I don't think you'll see resistance," Wight said. "Any time there's an opportunity to improve safety, as a former truck driver, I would welcome (that). The question is, is everybody going to use it? I can say that the answer to that is probably not. But by law, it's mandatory. Obviously ... people can chose to obey it or not, but it is a law and something we think will definitely improve safety in this situation."