The Interchange Boondoggle Part 1

Does anybody actually think the recently-constructed Center Street freeway on/off ramp works? Does anyone like it?

Since it was completed earlier this year, I’ve heard nothing but negative reactions to the project and now turns out that it’s not just supremely annoying, it’s actually dangerous. According to my colleague Paige Fieldsted, it’s the site of frequent accidents:

The new interchange is designed to increase capacity and improve access to downtown Provo, but since its inception both Provo police and UHP have seen an increase in accidents. The police reported at least 41 accidents at the intersection since May 1, with three of those happening last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Deputy fire chief Gary Jolley said since Sept. 1 they have responded to eight accidents where medical attention was necessary.

“We feel like it is just a matter of time before there is a fatal accident,” said Provo Detective Brian Taylor, who has been assigned to study the problems at the intersection.

Authorities are trying to fix the problem — and pointlessly blaming accident victims for their own misfortune — but at least one expert doesn’t think it’ll work:

“The concern I have is this is doing nothing to address the root of the problem,” Provo city engineer David Grovers said.

Grovers suggested that the entire design of the intersection may be flawed and that it might be necessary to tear down the interchange and start again sometime in the future. The major design flaw he cited is the U-turn needed for drivers traveling west to get to southbound I-15. The intersection was originally designed to work as a yield so drivers wouldn’t have to wait for a light and cause traffic back-ups, but after several accidents happened UDOT put in a stop sign. However, Grovers said the angle of the travel lane makes it difficult to see if there are cars coming off the freeway.

I’m inclined to agree. My own experiences on this extraordinarily complex stretch of road are so negative that I can’t imagine any small changes fixing the problem. It’s so convoluted, in fact, that UDOT released an instructional video on how to use it:

This project is the kind of thing that seems to have been designed entirely by computers — or computer-like people — who have no real world experience or appreciation for how physical spaces actually work.

The consequences of this ill-conceived project are dramatic. It’s costing taxpayers money —  for construction, maintenance, and rebuilding — and, apparently, it’s now costing blood as well.

And of course, this project also made it nearly impossible to bike from east Provo to west Provo, including to the airport, without taking a lengthy detour.

In any case, the point emerging from Paige’s article about accidents only confirms what most people already knew intuitively: that the interchange isn’t working. More broadly, it suggests that complex systems that look great on paper are rarely as good as simple ones that naturally make sense to users.

Check back later today for a second post examining how the underlying assumptions behind this project may themselves be flawed.


Filed under commuting, driving

7 responses to “The Interchange Boondoggle Part 1

  1. “Computer-like people” – I love it! As for the interchange: hate it. Every time I’m there I see someone who is utterly confused, but thankfully I’ve never seen an accident.

  2. Josh

    This entire issue could have been avoided entirely by changing the assumptions underlying the chosen design solution. UDOT works by establishing functional specifications and design constraints for the interchange, essentially creating a list of how it should work, or the functions it needs to fulfill. Engineers are then left to develop a design meeting those specifications and constraints. The problem with this process is that it defines the problem too narrowly and precludes solutions that fall outside the narrow scope of highway design. In this case the engineers would have never looked at the whole area and thought, what is the best way to resolve the conflict between the railroad right of way and the road right of way. Widening the definition of the problem could have led to implementing a grade separation for the railroad instead of the interchange ramps, simply putting the railroad under instead of the roads over. This would have saved substantial public funds by eliminating two large overpasses and hundreds of feet of ramps and access roads. Additionally this option would open up more land for tax revenue generating development and in my opinion most importantly would have created a straight, level Center Street through the interchange area. This would increase traffic function and safety for all users, peds, bikes and motor vehicles, massively increase the general sense of connectivity between the two sides of the freeway and create a long lost visual connection through the area. Lastly, with the massive construction already underway with the Frontrunner South project, substantially synergies could have been realized by including the rail grade separation in that project, saving even more public funds.

  3. Brandon

    I drive through it occasionally, but I don’t think I’ve driven through it since it has been 100% completed. I was actually pretty excited about the U-turn, as this is a common design in other metro areas (Dallas comes to mind immediately). If you were coming from Downtown Provo, and headed South on I-15, it seemed a little odd to have to backtrack north, take the U-turn and head South, but the U-turn originally seemed to offer the ability to do so without having to stop. When they had the temporary stop-sign there, I always thought it was temporary and that there would be a dedicated lane for the U-turn (not shared with the I-15 southbound headed to Downtown Prov). When I realized it wasn’t dedicated, I was definitely confused. If the original design was for a Yield, that is mind-boggling.

    In addition, 100% of the traffic taking the U-turn are going to head I-15 South, right? They’re not going to go back to Downtown Provo where they just came from… so WHY IN THE WORLD must they make an immediate lane change to get over to the right?!?!
    Shouldn’t the design have somehow had the left lanes lead to I-15, and the Provo Downtown ramp be on the right and go over/under the I-15 ramp? That seems to be another huge failing. No dedicated lane, limited visibility, and drivers trying to make a lane change (or is it TWO?) in a short period of distance. That is a recipe for disaster.

  4. Pingback: The Interchange Boondoggle Part 2 | (pro(vo)cation)

  5. Jasony Kanoli

    I completely agree. The idea behing the interchange is great, but the functionality is terrible.
    On the other hand, the new interchange in front of UVU is fantastic, in my opinion. I never have to wait any more and it’s so simple for me to understand. Another example of UDOT’s ability to innovate and improve are the Diverging Diamond Interchanges at Pioneer Crossing and in Lehi. They work so well.
    But the Center street exit just doesn’t work. Eevery day I go to work, I take it as slow as possible because I never know if I’m going to be the next victim.

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