HURRICANE, Washington County — State transportation, local officials and residents alike gathered Wednesday to celebrate the completion of a massive highway project in southern Utah.
And those in attendance at a ribbon-cutting ceremony had plenty to cheer about.
The group of a few dozen welcomed the opening of the final expansion to state Route 7, also known as the Southern Parkway. Utah Department of Transportation officials say the highway is the first major belt route east of I-15 in Washington County.
"We've been working on this project for two decades," said Rick Torgerson, the director of UDOT's Region 4, adding that the completion required planning and work in coordination with the local communities of St. George, Washington, Hurricane and other organizations.
It's a project that first began in the planning stages all the way back in 1995 and funding began in 2004, Hurricane Mayor John Bramall said. Work to build S.R. 7 first began in 2007 and the first portion of it opened in 2009 with a celebration similar to Wednesday's.
It's expanded ever since, going from I-15 in St. George as far as the Sand Hollow Reservoir. For the final leg, which was just completed, crews extended the highway roughly eight miles around the southern perimeter of the Sand Hollow Reservoir and linked it to state Route 9.
The expansion means that S.R. 7 now runs about 26 miles from Exit 2 on I-15 in St. George to a junction with S.R. 9 in Hurricane. Motorists can then continue east to places like Zion National Park from there.
"Fourteen years later, we have a completed state Route 7," Bramall said. "It's a great day for us; it's a great day for anyone who comes and recreates in Hurricane. It gives them a great way to access all of our recreational opportunities here in southern Utah."
The final project cost $75 million and close to $250 million was invested into the entire corridor, UDOT officials said. They added that the investment and the highway itself will help transportation, especially as the region's population grows.
That's why the planning began almost two decades ago. Bramall pointed out that former Gov. Jon Huntsman said in the years leading up to the highway first opening, that it would be "wise" to build a southern Utah belt route and to build it before growth in the region meant the state and local officials would need to buy out homeowners to make it happen.
In that sense, Bramall viewed the final cost as a bargain compared to what could have otherwise happened.
"It's probably one of the longest, least expensive areas of road that have ever been built that is a regional limited-access highway," he said.
There are many reasons local officials were eager for the project to come together over the past two decades.
This is going to declutter our SR-9 but it'll also give those traveling here in southern Utah some great vistas as they travel through.
–Hurricane Mayor John Bramall
The final leg is incredibly important to recreation in the Hurricane area as much as it is to have a connection to Zion. For example, 1.3 million people visited Sand Hollow State Park last year, which was the most visitors any Utah state park had received in a single year on record. Bramall said the highway will help visitors get people to and from the park.
He added that the city of Hurricane has also worked to ensure Sand Mountain, a recreation area located to the south of S.R. 7 and the state park, is preserved for motorized and nonmotorized recreation. It's a recreation spot that he called "a gem" that's also used year-round.
But the highway extension also provides better access to other important portions of the region for residents, which is another reason local leaders are excited to see its completion. It includes ways to reach the industrial areas of St. George and the region's airport.
Bramall said residents as far west as Ivins can use the highway and avoid stops they have to endure if they planned to travel east to Hurricane and beyond. However, he argued that the highway offers many advantages altogether.
"We just think it's a great opportunity for people in south St. George to come east, as well as all those traveling," he said. "This is going to declutter our S.R. 9 but it'll also give those traveling here in southern Utah some great vistas as they travel through."