Layton • Two contradictory signs here create what looks like a “you can’t get there from here” conundrum, thanks to a newfangled “ThrU Turn” intersection system.
A blue state highway placard — a paid ad giving directions to Del Taco for traffic exiting Interstate 15 onto Hill Field Road — points drivers to turn left at nearby Main Street. The trouble is, another sign bans left turns there.
To go left to Del Taco, drivers first must go straight through the Main Street intersection a few hundred feet to a special “bulb out” intersection with its own signal. They must make a tight U-turn there, go back to Main Street and then make a right turn. It’s called a Michigan U-Turn in other areas.
“It’s confusing, so people avoid the area. It really hurt our business,” says Del Taco owner Paul Hitzelberger. “We’re still growing, but not like we were before.”
He also owns a Del Taco on 12300 South in Draper, near another ThrU Turn installed five years ago. “That one cut our business drastically, and it’s taken years for it to come back,” he said. “I have one thing to say about the design: Stop doing it. It’s wrong.”
The Utah Department of Transportation disagrees.
While officials say the design is confusing enough that it likely won’t be used often — it is only in three spots now — they argue it sometimes is the best way to solve tricky problems. And they say it is working well near the Layton Hills Mall.
“Studies show that while more traffic is going through the area, congestion decreased,” says Kris Peterson, director of UDOT Region One. “Traffic is moving much more efficiently.”
After big controversy with the ThrU Turn design at projects in Draper and Kearns — where numerous businesses insisted it killed them — UDOT worked more closely with shops in Layton about spacing and design, and predicted that most major problems there would be avoided.
Now, a year after the ThrU turns were installed — to speed traffic by avoiding time for left turns at major intersections — how well that actually happened still stirs debate.
UDOT commissioned a study to compare traffic along Hill Field Road before and after adding the ThrU Turns (plus related work that reduced the number of signals at its interchange there with I-15).
It found travel time improved by 25 percent during the afternoon peak and by 15 percent during the morning high. It estimates that cuts travel time through the short corridor by about a minute in the afternoon.
Some, like Hitzelberger, argue that part of the faster drive time is because people avoid the area and its confusing U-turns — a case of chasing traffic away rather than fixing clogged areas.
However, the study found that daily traffic volume actually “increased from 24,200 vehicles to 31,600” a day (after subtracting cars that pass through twice because of required U-turns).
Linda Kelley, senior general manager of Layton Hills Mall, is a fan of the project.
“To go from the mall just over to Main Street used to take me 15 to 25 minutes. Now it takes maybe 45 seconds,” she says. “The traffic flow has improved dramatically.”
Peterson said backed-up traffic previously required cars to sit through numerous light changes to work through each intersection. That issue has now largely disappeared, he said.
“But there’s still a perception problem,” Peterson said.
Also, the UDOT study said the ThrU Turns actually made trips longer for some people — mostly those going opposite to the majority of traffic. Signals are timed in ways that trips lengthened for them.
Juan Yac, manager of the Del Taco on Main Street, says that leads drivers to take chances that cause more accidents.
He says some people who think the signals at the U-turns take too long simply drive beyond them by a few feet and flip U-turns in the middle of the street in front of his restaurant. Some of those making these hazardous turns may have simply missed the U-turn intersections.
“You see it happening all day long,” said Randy Garoutte, manager of a Mattress Firm store on the corner of Main Street and Hill Field.
Peterson concedes that, in the beginning, people unfamiliar with the area sometimes got confused and stopped in intersections or tried to turn where that was not allowed.
“That caused a lot of accidents, especially at first. Now that people are more used to how it works, that has decreased.”
Garoutte seems a bit lonely sitting by himself in his Mattress Firm store one morning. He says business has been down in large part because of the ThrU Turns.
“It cut my business by about a third,” he said, adding he’s run a variety of specials and promotions — with big banners outside — seeking to revive it.
“The people who do make it in often say they drove around in circles a long time trying to figure out how to get in here,” he said, adding he recommends potential customers get off the freeway at a different exit to avoid the mess.
Next door, La Puente restaurant has shuttered and a note on the door says: “We look forward to serving the Layton area in the future again.”
Toni Webster, a supervisor at the nearby Deseret Book, said when the ThrU Turns opened, business took a significant hit.
But, she adds, “It’s a lot better now. I think people got used to it.”
Kelley at Layton Hills Mall said it’s difficult to gauge how ThrU Turns may have affected stores in the area. “But the mall has been doing well, especially since a new Dillard’s opened.”
Layton Mayor Bob Stevenson said sales tax receipts in his city are up about 25 percent over the recent year.
Stevenson says even his elderly mother asked him why the city agreed to those “crazy intersections.” He said at a meet–the-candidates night, some residents also complained about them — but he was surprised that others quickly got up to defend them.
“One man said it was the best thing we’ve ever done, and was amazed at how much better the traffic is,” the mayor said. He adds that shows the dilemma with ThrU Turns: They do help traffic, but are confusing and unpopular — at least at first.
“This is a solution that was specific for this interchange,” said Peterson. “We would not pretend that it works everywhere.”
Shane Marshall, deputy director of UDOT, said the agency will use ThrU Turns sparingly.
“We’ll use them where they make sense, but we’re not going to force it where they don’t.”
He doesn’t expect to see many more around the state, in part because they are confusing.
Marshall concedes it didn’t work well on the border of Kearns and Taylorsville at the intersection of 5400 South and 4015 West, again where many businesses said it ruined access to them.
“It probably wasn’t the best place in the world for one [in Kearns], and we’re probably going to look at some redesign” there, he said.
“When they make sense, we’ll evaluate them,” Marshall said. “We worked hard with the community here [in Layton]. It takes that higher level of public involvement in order to do something like this, and more public education.”