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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Motorists jam I-15 near Pleasant Grove. By next June, an HOV lane will have been added in each direction.

It may just be a Band-Aid on a deep gash, but Utah County drivers can look forward to some congestion relief from an I-15 widening project that UDOT started Monday.

The $42 million project, due to wrap up next June, will add a high-occupancy vehicle, or car-pool lane, in each direction to the interstate from the Alpine interchange in Lehi to University Parkway in Orem. It will extend the HOV lanes that were added this past year between the 10600 South interchange in Sandy and the Alpine interchange. When the project is complete, four lanes will be open in each direction. But over the next year, drivers can expect some nighttime construction delays.

During the day, the three existing lanes will remain open in each direction. From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., various lane restrictions will be in place as the project progresses.

UDOT representatives admit the project will not solve the traffic congestion problem on I-15 but hope the car-pool lanes will successfully reduce gridlock, as they have in Salt Lake County.

"HOV lanes have encouraged car-pooling in Salt Lake Valley," said UDOT spokesman Brent Wilhite. "It's catching on, and it's moving more people with fewer vehicles, and that's the end result, that's what we're looking for. We like to say we're in the business of moving people, not just cars, and that's meeting our goals there."

Wilhite said car-pool lanes in Salt Lake County now average 2.55 occupants per vehicle and at the peak evening rush hour transport 9 percent more people in half as many vehicles as general purpose lanes. But Utah County may not see such impressive numbers right off the bat: First-year use of Salt Lake County HOV lanes resulted in an average of just 1.2 occupants per vehicle.

A more permanent solution to I-15 traffic woes is still a few years down the road; in the meantime, transportation officials say they are taking what steps they can to reduce congestion.

"By 2006 we'll complete an environmental impact statement that's going to address projected local and regional population growth and travel demand over the next 25 years," Wilhite said. "So we're looking down the road, but we have to do something immediately to address the current and short-term congestion. We can't just ignore that. Things are just going to get worse if we do."

Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert expressed similar sentiments but noted that secondary routes also need attention.

"You've got to start someplace, and we only have so much money, and so we've got to put together a functional comprehensive transportation plan, not just for I-15, but for other arterial roads throughout the state," Herbert said.

The HOV project is being funded mostly by the state, which contributed $30 million. The remaining $12 million will come from federal funds.

UDOT hopes that adding the HOV lanes will encourage more Utah County drivers who commute to the Salt Lake Valley to give car-pooling a try — which could reduce traffic even more.

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"We're pleased to bring forth the car-pool lane to Utah County, and we're hopeful that folks will gravitate towards that and that they will choose to car-pool," said John Njord, UDOT executive director.

I-15 has also been tagged as a possible candidate for high-occupancy toll roads, or HOT lanes. HOT lanes allow motorists to buy the right to drive in car-pool lanes without a passenger.

UDOT is currently studying several HOT lane candidates, but hasn't made any decisions yet.

"It's something we need to examine and say, 'Would it work? And if so, where?' " Wilhite said. "This is one area where it's under consideration."

Utah's HOV lanes are open to any vehicle carrying more than one person, including buses, as well as solo drivers of motorcycles and vehicles that burn clean fuel such as natural gas. Vehicles pulling any type of trailer — commercial or private — or weighing more than six tons are prohibited. A violation is a class C misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $500 and/or three months in jail.

E-mail: mdecker@desnews.com