Aaron Chambers of Cache Valley Electric, right, operated a drill on Wednesday, Jan. 11, as his co-workers prepared a foundation hole for a new traffic signal at the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and Arches National Park's main entrance. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The low-tech stop sign near the main entrance to Arches National Park is heading to the scrap heap.

Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) contractor Cache Valley Electric began work this week to install a new traffic signal and other improvements at the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and the park entrance.

Construction work at the intersection is likely to wrap up within the next month. However, the system may not be operating immediately afterward, depending on the availability of crews to hook up the power, UDOT Region 4 Communications Manager Kevin Kitchen said.

Kitchen said that concerns about safety and traffic flows were the driving forces behind his agency’s decision to move forward with the improvements.

“It will be a great thing for protecting (traffic) in and out of the park,” he told the Moab Sun News.

The intersection was the site of a May 14, 2016, traffic accident that claimed the life of a Texas teenager who was traveling through the area with her family. Although Kitchen didn’t have any exact traffic statistics from the intersection at hand, there have also been numerous close calls at the site, and he said the improvements are designed to reduce the future potential for serious accidents.

Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Ty Roberts said the intersection has the dubious distinction of being among the less safe spots within his office’s jurisdiction.

“We do get a fair amount of injury crashes there,” he said. “For the Grand County area, that’s one of our hotspots of where (those) happen.”

Needless to say, Roberts said the highway patrol is happy to see crews moving forward with the project, based on statistics which show that an estimated 1.5 million people passed through Arches’ entrance in 2015 – the most recent year for which data are available.

“When you’ve got that kind of congestion going in there and it creates those blind curves, this is really a step toward everybody’s safety going through (the intersection),” he said.

The new signal will not be a traditional stoplight per se, and will instead use “smart sensors” that can tell when cars are coming or going from designated turn lanes.

Visitors who are approaching the park from the highway north of the entrance will pull over into a signaled left turn lane, but through traffic heading south on 191 toward Moab will not be stopped.

Meanwhile, northbound drivers on 191 will typically see green indicators above travel lanes, except when southbound cars are turning into the park, and when traffic exits the park and turns left into a protected merge lane toward Moab.

In addition to the signal, a raised median will divide the north and south lanes on 191 immediately west of the park’s entrance road, thereby corralling drivers into the merge lane.

“As you’re coming off the park road, you will not be able to turn immediately,” Kitchen said. “You’ll move over into a lane that will help you merge into that southbound traffic.”

Kitchen said that UDOT traffic engineers and others have been studying traffic patterns at the intersection for at least the last four to five years, and in that time, there have been advancements in the fields of traffic engineering and technology.

“One of the things that’s helped us is the progression in signal technologies,” he said.

Despite those advancements, though, Kitchen said the new signal won’t solve the growing problem of traffic congestion at the intersection. During peak visitor periods, inbound park traffic can back up onto 191, creating potential safety hazards like the blind spots that concern Roberts.

“It’s a matter of managing those peaks,” Kitchen said. “I think everybody (in Moab) knows that the volumes of tourists have increased in the past couple of years. It’s just amazing when you look at (visitation statistics from) the park.”

However, park officials are taking steps of their own to improve traffic flows into Arches.

John Lewis, who serves as chief of maintenance at Arches and Canyonlands national parks, said the park is preparing to widen the entrance road beyond the short-term parking area near the entrance, adding a second inbound lane. Federal Highway Administration (FHA) officials have told park administrators that they believe the entrance road work will be complete by Memorial Day weekend at the latest.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the crowds: That’s the goal,” Lewis said.

As for the remaining stretch of the entrance road between the short-term parking area and the highway, Lewis said that park service and UDOT officials are still trying to iron out the details of that project.

The entrance road work is part of a massive overhaul to upgrade the park’s roads, which were largely built in the early 1960s and weren’t designed to handle current traffic levels, he said.

The park will soon go out to bid on the overall project to rehabilitate roads throughout Arches. After the contract is awarded, crews will be grinding up the existing asphalt on the roads, putting it through a “hopper,” and then laying it down as a road base, which will then be overlaid with a 3- to 4-inch thick surface.

Lewis said that park officials are mindful of any potential disruptions that the project could cause, so they plan to work around peak visitation periods during the daylight hours.

“It’s going to be done at night to reduce the impacts on the public,” he said.

Beyond the park’s main entrance, UDOT is moving forward with plans to upgrade pedestrian traffic signals at 191’s junctions with state Route 128, 100 North, Center Street, 100 South and 300 South.

“They will put the actual buttons farther out toward the corner, particularly where international tourists can see them better,” Kitchen said.

The upgrades, which should be complete before Presidents Day, will also bring the signals into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meanwhile, city officials are working with UDOT on plans to eventually widen Highway 191 from North Main Street to the Colorado River bridge. One of the biggest problems they have to address, according to Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt, is storm runoff from the Stewart Canyon drainage behind La Hacienda Restaurant on North Main Street.

“That is a huge problem for how it affects down-drainage landowners,” Everitt said.

UDOT project aims to improve safety at increasingly busy intersection on Hwy. 191

When you’ve got that kind of congestion going in there and it creates those blind curves, this is really a step toward everybody’s safety going through (the intersection).