ST. GEORGE — State transportation officials are planning $1.6 million in improvements for bicycle travel on a scenic stretch of state Route 18 disrupted by a recent highway project north of St. George.

The stretch of highway through Snow Canyon State Park was one of the most popular in the region before the Utah Department of Transportation repaved it earlier this year.

New "rumble strips" along narrower shoulders made it safer for drivers but nearly impossible for cyclists to navigate the road.

"I would say 99 percent of people decide not to ride it at all, which from a tourism side is horrible for us," said Ryan Gurr, co-owner of Red Rock Bicycle Company and a board member with the Southern Utah Bicycle Alliance, an advocacy group that organized in the wake of the SR-18 construction to represent cyclists' interests in the area.

The group joined with local officials and convinced UDOT that the safety concerns for cyclists and ensuing loss of tourism revenue warranted a change.

Now the state has agreed to improve the roadway.

Kevin Kitchen, public involvement manager with UDOT, told The Spectrum that the agency plans to add six to eight feet of shoulder width on both sides of the roadway on a four-mile stretch from Diamond Valley to the Ledges development, as well as on another stretch of road already under construction near Snow Canyon Parkway.

The route is a key part of the St. George Ironman, Huntsman Senior World Games, the Tour de St. George and other major events.

The project still must go through design and environmental study stages, which could cause delays, but the general plan is to get the project done as early as possible next year in order to accommodate the cycling season.

"We want to do something out there as quickly as possible," Kitchen said.

The project, which officials hope to start over the winter, could make a huge difference for cyclists, Gurr said.

"We didn't expect this level of commitment from them," he said. "We realize it's not the best economic time, so they can't just pull money out and pay for everything that's an issue, but they listened, and they saw this as a big economic issue."

St. George city and Washington County also have agreed to sweep the shoulders more often, perhaps four times a year instead of annually. St. George Mayor Daniel McArthur said the project fits in well with the city's recent push to make St. George friendlier to cyclists.

"Our emphasis in St. George this year is bike trails and bike paths," McArthur said, alluding to the city's plans to add 5.3 miles of bike lanes and 8.4 miles of bike routes in the next few years.

As plans like that develop, cyclists are hoping to be a part of the discussion, and the bicycle alliance already has organized the region's first cycling summit for late next month.