Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Reconstruction of St. George Boulevard this past year has slowed traffic along the main Dixie thoroughfare.

Dal Hawks likens the traffic in Washington County to a flood. It started as a trickle, but with each new person and each new development, the river of cars is quickly expanding.

And soon, it could become a torrent.

"If you create a rainstorm in one area, it's just going to flow down and get into someone else's property," said Hawks, director of the Utah Department of Transportation's Region 4, which covers the southern half of the state.

By 2035, long-range planners predict that traffic volumes in parts of Washington County will more than double. St. George Boulevard is looking at an additional 9,400 cars each day. Bluff Street is facing a 33,400-car increase in traffic.

The Snow Canyon Parkway? An increase of more than 85,000 vehicles, according to the Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO. The group was created in 2002, and like its Wasatch Front counterparts, it is charged with long-range planning for the St. George urban area.

Lowell Elmer, director of the Dixie MPO, said more than a dozen transportation projects are planned for the St. George area by 2030. Environmental studies are being done for a belt route between Hurricane and St. George that will connect to I-15 and the planned location of a new regional airport.

Waiting for the St. George Airport to move from its current location atop a mesa in the middle of town to another location where larger jets can land has been frustrating, said Mayor Dan McArthur.

"We've been working on this since 1994," McArthur said. "It's taking much longer than it ought to. The airport is going to cost $20 million more than what we originally expected."

St. George officials must wait for a final environmental impact statement, which the Federal Aviation Administration says could be released by the end of May, and a final Record of Decision expected in September, the mayor said. Once those are received, the design phase of the $100 million replacement airport can begin.

Although public transportation is a rather new option in St. George, its use is growing and routes are expanding. SunTran buses carry riders on three routes to 60 stops, with covered bus shelters provided and a central transit center under construction. SunTran doesn't yet provide Sunday service, but that could change if ridership numbers increase.

A western belt route dipping down toward SunRiver to the south of St. George and a corridor north of the city also are planned. McArthur is anxious to get cars off some of the traditional roadways and says the northern corridor is a "critical" transportation project.

Rehabilitation and expansion of arterial streets are also on the list, which has a staggering 28 highway projects and at least 10 major bicycle/pedestrian trails and loops between cities.

"There are quite a few projects to help with the conditions," Hawks said.

But funding is a problem.

Transportation planners say Utah is facing a $16.5 billion deficit for needed transportation projects. In the Dixie region alone, needs are well over $1 billion, according to Elmer.

The St. George area receives about $650,000 per year to maintain state roads. Another $650,000 in federal dollars is available to assist the SunTran transit system. Much of the money is relegated to rehabilitation projects and small construction fixes.

"We do not have sufficient funds to take care of the issues at the time we need to take care of them," Elmer said. "And, because of limited corridor capacity, we're going to see severe congestion if we can't get additional funding."

During the 2006 legislative session, Utah lawmakers approved a bill that authorizes the state to enter into public-private partnerships to build toll roads. The deal would allow the state to potentially take in billions by allowing a private group to pay for the right to build, maintain and collect tolls on a road.

New capacity roads in Washington County have the potential to become publicly operated toll roads, according to Elmer.

If nothing is done, cities could be faced with failed transportation systems, Hawks said.

"The rate of growth is unprecedented," he said, "and transportation absolutely needs to be addressed with the growth."


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com; nperkins@desnews.com