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Ett: Transit-hub development key to Utah future

Published August 17, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's population is growing exponentially. Automobile travel, school expense, pollution and demands on services will dramatically increase as a result.

Evidence demonstrates that current tax rates will not supply enough revenue for needed services and road construction. Both Atlanta and Seattle (No. 7 and No. 10 of the most-congested cities), are cities in which high quality of life led to dramatic growth and increase in congestion. In 2011, congestion cost Americans 5.5 billion additional hours in traffic and $121 billion.

Do we want this to happen here?

Mass transit can mitigate this, taking pressure from road building needs and carrying many more passengers per dollar than the combined cost of automobiles, road building and road maintenance.

There is another mitigating possibility called transit-oriented development, consisting of high-density centers, or nodes, integrating transit, housing, workplaces, entertainment, retail, schools and services.

Utah calls our approach to this "The 3 Percent Strategy":

If we allow one-third of our future homes, jobs and stores to go on 3 percent of our region's developable land, linked by a world-class transportation system, we will…

• Improve air quality,

• Save billions of dollars,

• Reduce traffic congestion,

• Preserve our key open spaces,

• Use less water,

• Create vibrant communities and gathering places.

This strategy allows people to walk to work, school, shopping and entertainment and to rapidly access other similar nodes without using automobiles at all.

By placing public and community services and schools in these nodes (pay attention Sandy), communities avoid placing the traffic these facilities represent on our existing roads and reduce the upward pressure on taxes.

Most people don't know that a substantial market demand exists for living in communities that support this strategy.

Objections?

• All density increase is bad. But: We will get it anyway. This strategy approaches density more intelligently. Remember it is on only 3 percent of the land, limiting density and congestion in your neighborhood by focusing growth in very limited areas.

• Road contractors feel endangered by any shift in budget allocations affecting them. But: We will have to support more road building no matter what we do. The strategy just mitigates the cost of the increase.

• Politicians believe the strategy is flawed, costs too much and doesn't serve the best interest of the public. But: Their experiences do not represent the market that exists. Many studies and facts indicate we can save money and add to quality of life.

• Utah Transit Authority spends too much money. Its executive pay and fares are too high. It builds garages at public expense that do not serve the public and suspiciously benefit private development. But: UTA is a national transit poster child. It is one of only a very few systems operating within budget and on schedule (by years and tens of millions of dollars). Whatever it pays its people is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost overruns it avoids. The parking garages will be needed later as density increases and there are known methods of recouping the cost from the private sector as the market changes. (Aren't they better built today than at tomorrow's costs?) The pressure on fares will decrease as density leads to more ridership and sales tax (UTA's principal sources of operating funds).

Fortunately, Utah is blessed with very intelligent, thoughtful people in government, business, and education who believe in and are working together on implementing the 3 percent strategy, of which UTA is the mass transit part. UTA is not just about getting from place to place, it is about the future.

Robert Ett is a retired architect and nationally experienced consultant in transit-oriented development living in Park City. He has consulted with UTA on TOD strategy and has served on the Downtown Alliance Transportation and Development committees.