How do you get from Salt Lake County’s fast-growing southwestern cities to other parts of the valley?
Area roads, many designed when these towns were quiet bedroom communities, are frequently crammed, particularly during commuting times. And new homes, apartments and town houses are going up at a swift pace in that neck of the county.
Frustrated mayors say their cities are growing so rapidly that road improvements aren’t keeping up, and they are imploring state officials to make transportation spending in the region a high priority.
The suburban cities of Herriman, South Jordan, West Jordan, Bluffdale, Riverton and Copperton have added more than 160,000 residents since 2000, their mayors say, and that wave has brought a flurry of housing development, much of it multifamily.
And although these cities have taken in roughly 70 percent of the county’s population increase over the past two decades, their mayors contend the state is behind on millions of dollars in upgrades to roads, interchanges and mass transit in their areas.
The combined trends have left many key east-west arterials such as 12600 South and 13400 South at failure rates, meaning that commuter traffic grinds to a standstill on a near-daily basis. At the same time, bus and train services are significantly lacking across the region, which, because it has nearly half of the county’s remaining undeveloped land, will only get more crowded.
“Ask any resident in the area, or drive through the quadrant during peak hours, and you will hear about the infrastructure challenge to keep up with our rapid expansion,” the six mayors wrote in a jointly signed op-ed, published Sunday in The Salt Lake Tribune.
The problem is apparent just from the region’s geography, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs said in an interview. Wasatch Boulevard on the county’s east side, for example, is six miles from Interstate 15. Western portions of Herriman, South Jordan and West Jordan, meanwhile, are 12 miles from I-15.
“We've got no interstate connectivity and we've got no east-west connector and our traffic counts have just gotten progressively worse,” Staggs told The Tribune, adding that state road spending “is more than 10 years behind the curve when it comes to the southwest part of the valley.”
He and other mayors are pushing for, among other things, funding to finish the Mountain View Corridor and convert Bangerter Highway into a full freeway — projects that between them represent more than $1 billion in state spending.
“You’ve got to look at where the growth is occurring,” Staggs said. “And let’s not treat areas disparately, because in the southwest, it feels like we have been.”
‘Victims of success’
The opinion piece — signed by Staggs and fellow Mayors Jim Riding of West Jordan; Dawn Ramsey of South Jordan; Derk Timothy of Bluffdale; Sean Clayton of the metro township of Copperton; and Herriman Mayor Pro Tempore Jared Henderson — comes amid other signs of frustration among elected leaders in that part of Salt Lake County, including talk of creating their own county.
Utah Department of Transportation officials say that the agency isn’t shortchanging that part of the valley, but instead prioritizes road spending statewide based on need — in a process designed to be apolitical.
UDOT spokesman John Gleason said Bangerter Highway remains one of the most heavily traveled roads on the valley’s west side. And after recently completing a series of freeway-style interchanges, the agency continues to make that stretch a priority, he said, as it is with the Mountain View Corridor. Gleason also noted a recent widening to three lanes of 10600 South from I-15 to Redwood Road, as well as other work serving the area.
“It feels like I'm always talking about projects that we're doing in the southwestern part of Salt Lake County,” Gleason said.
But Staggs said that road spending decisions statewide seem designed to spread funds evenly among UDOT’s four regions, instead of adequately targeting areas of rapid growth.
State officials have fueled the wider problem, Staggs and West Jordan’s Riding added, with economic development incentives that have lured thousands of new, often high-paying jobs to Utah, many of them along the highway corridor linking southern Salt Lake and northern Utah counties, known as Silicon Slopes.
“We’ve been a victim of our own success,” Staggs said.
Tax incentives offered to businesses through the years by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development have centered on bringing people and industries to Utah, Riding said, “but they don’t seem too worried about moving them around."
Val Hale, executive director of GOED, said those economic development efforts had succeeded in bringing high-paying employment to Utah and diversifying its economy, making it “the envy of the nation.” But Hale acknowledged that resulting growth has begun to create significant issues in both affordable housing and transportation.
“It’s starting to get more expensive and more challenging for people, no doubt about it,” Hale said. “I commute every day from Orem to Salt Lake so I know firsthand what that’s like.
“We definitely have to try to stay ahead of it,” he said, “and that requires some very diligent and thoughtful planning to do that.”
The mayors’ public statement on roads also comes as lawmakers on Utah’s Capitol Hill consider new steps nudging cities to plan for more affordable housing.
The Legislature is advancing a bill that would use state transportation money as a way to require cities to adopt strategies that encourage construction of affordable housing.
SB34 — considered one of the hallmark bills of the 2019 legislative session — would penalize cities that don’t take up at least three of 21 recommended housing strategies by making them ineligible for future state transportation investment money.
That bill remained in the House Rules Committee as of Friday, sidetracked for now because it would provide $20 million in one-time money and $4 million yearly after that to the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan Trust Fund. It is expected to move to the House floor as the state’s latest budget numbers come into better focus.
And while southwest Salt Lake Valley cities are all probably meeting SB34’s housing requirements already, Staggs questioned the bill’s approach in light of his city’s existing transportation needs.
“Why would you put that cart before the horse?” the Riverton mayor asked. “Then if we don't add to our cart the way they want, they’ll take our horse?”
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, the sponsor of SB34, said he was sympathetic to the mayors’ concerns over road spending added that his bill would not harm them.
“If they're saying we need more attention for transportation, I agree 100 percent,” said Anderegg, “but that is not what this bill is.”
SB34, the product of work by a 20-member commission created last year, is designed to give cities a lot of flexibility, the lawmaker said — and to more closely coordinate future state road spending with city land-use planning and growth.
The mayors’ public call for help also comes amid other signs of frustrations shared by city officials in southwest Salt Lake County.
Staggs said in an interview the opinion piece grew out of a dialogue among southwest valley mayors as they have met regularly since last summer’s controversy over the proposed Olympia Hills development west of Herriman.
“We share so many similar demographics," Staggs said, “and that growth pattern, as it fills out the county, is largely going our way.”
Though initially approved by Salt Lake County, the high-density, 9,000-residential unit Olympic Hills project was ultimately vetoed by then-County Mayor Ben McAdams in the face of opposition from area mayors and thousands of residents, mostly over traffic concerns.
Staggs said southwest cities are unfairly perceived as resisting higher-density housing, when, in fact, they’ve allowed thousands of multifamily dwellings in recent years and thousands more are in the pipeline. Denser housing now represents between 30 percent and 40 percent of all housing stock in their communities, the mayors wrote, a ratio on par or higher than other areas of the county.
“People and even legislators and folks with the county I speak with sometimes think that Bluffdale, Herriman and parts of Riverton are made up of these sprawling acre-plus lots with horses,” Staggs said. “That is not the case. They just don’t know what we’ve done.”
There are indications, too, that Riverton and adjacent communities have begun to strike out on their own on key issues.
Leaders in Herriman, Riverton, West Jordan and Copperton also recently voiced support for a bill that would essentially let communities break away and create their own county without needing support from the county they are leaving.
And while they’re not saying they’re likely to secede, several city officials from the area have said that HB39, sponsored by Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, could give them leverage with county officials in some long-standing disputes, including over transportation spending.
In their op-ed, the mayors also announced they are amassing $250,000 to pay for a first-ever joint regional planning effort, designed to create a vision for integrating the six cities’ roadways and transit systems. Salt Lake County has already put $100,000 toward the study, and the cities have contributed $25,000 among them while they seek a grant to pay for the rest of it.
“This is a critical step,” the mayors wrote of their planning effort.
And, for commuters’ sake, they are asking the state to do more to ease that bumper-to-bumper traffic they face almost daily.