ST. GEORGE — Like other public agencies and services, the Utah Department of Transportation has had to adapt to how it operates with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite some changes in operation, however, this hasn’t caused any major disruption to UDOT projects in Southwest Utah.
“Our projects have been going forward at scheduled,” said Kevin Kitchen, a spokesperson for UDOT’s Region 4, which covers Southwest Utah.
The biggest road project currently taking place is work on the final segment of state Route 7, also known as the Southern Parkway, and its eventual connection to state Route 9 via a new interchange in the area of 2700 West.
The Southern Parkway currently stops at Sand Hollow Road and indirectly connects to SR-9 through that roadway. The final 8-mile stretch of road completing the Southern Parkway will run from the intersection with Sand Hollow Road and go around the eastern side of the Sand Hollow Reservoir and directly connect with SR-9.
Kitchen said the project is still on track to be completed by February.
While UDOT has its own social distancing and cleanliness mandates to follow as outlined by the Governor’s Office and Utah Health Department, Kitchen said the contractors hired by UDOT for their projects may also have their own requirements beyond that. Overall, these requirements include wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from others while at the job site.
At one worksite, a contractor had 20 gallons of hand sanitizer delivered for their work crews, Kitchen said.
“Even with the added precautions, we haven’t seen any major delays,” Kitchen said.
There is a challenge when if come to conducting meetings with contractors when a project initially gets underway. Typically, meeting in person allows for a better sense of teamwork, coordination and comradery to be built that teleconferencing can’t quite match, Kitchen said.
Like other agencies that also have office-based jobs across Utah and beyond, UDOT has instructed its office-based employees to work from home where possible and meet through online video conferencing applications.
On the brighter side at least, some of these meetings are shorter than they used to be, Kitchen said.
UDOT has had to address issues with employees working from home as other agencies and businesses have. Some employees have to work around having children at home from school or deal with healthcare issues.
“We try to be as flexible as we can with that,” Kitchen said.
Internal communications within the UDOT have increased, however, resulting in online contests being held to help keep spirits up, or people showing how they are coping with working from home and addressing the pandemic.
With current social distancing recommendations still in effect despite Gov. Gary Herbert moving the state from a high-risk threat level for the virus to a moderate-rick level, it has posed a challenge as far as public meetings for UDOT and other agencies are concerned, Kitchen said.
Public meetings where UDOT asks for public comment are held differently now as they are streamed over YouTube or Facebook for the public to watch.
While UDOT has taken in comments on issues ahead of meetings and then addresses them accordingly during that meeting – something which the Washington City Council has also done – UDOT would like to try something more interactive, Kitchen said.
A forthcoming challenge for UDOT, as well as other public state and local agencies that rely on taxes for funding, is an expected drop in transportation tax revenue. This is either connected to the gas tax for UDOT, or as applied locally, a 0.25% sales tax which Washington County adopted last year. With a majority of people told to stay at home since the onset of the pandemic, not that many have taken to the roads or spent much otherwise.
“Those tax revenues may not come in as high as they have in the past,” Kitchen said, adding UDOT may need to reevaluate what projects it plans to fund in the coming year due to an anticipated lack of funding. “What will this mean for sustaining our activities?”
Despite the issues and concerns the COVID-19 pandemic has raised, Kitchen reiterated that work on current road and maintenance projects largely continue without disruption.
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