Legislature spends day peering into the future, hoping to improve it

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Development continues to creep up against the Oquirrh foothills along the southwest bench in Salt Lake County near Herriman, May 17, 2019. Utah lawmakers met in a policy summit Tuesday to talk about Utah's future and the estimated addition of 2 million more people by 2050.

Camp Williams • Nostradamus. Moses. Muhammad. The California Psychics Hotline. And now add Utah legislators to those who attempt to look into and guide the future.

They spent Tuesday at the Camp Williams National Guard base — in rooms without windows and (mostly) with cellphones off — trying to work up a vision urged by House Speaker Brad Wilson: “Think what the state of Utah will look like in a decade or two,” or beyond.

Lawmakers discussed with one another and outside experts how to address long-term challenges caused by fast growth, ranging from transportation to affordable housing, energy, water and more.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent the future. That’s what we’re here to do today,” Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, told lawmakers.

She outlined how growth may make the state far different than it has been in the past, as 2 million more people are expected by 2050.

Gochnour said that in recent decades, Utah, on average, adds about 45,000 or more people a year — the equivalent of adding the population of Summit County annually. “Growth is Utah’s constant companion” and will continue to be.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, on June 29, 2018.

But the type of growth is changing.

In the past, most of it was from children born here, while net in-migration from outsiders had cycles of boom or bust. In recent years, in-migration has become constant, and the state’s fertility rate has declined — making for a population that is increasingly diverse.

A typical Utah woman now will have about two children in her lifetime — down from 4.5 in 1960. “We in this state are rapidly approaching replacement-rate fertility," Gochnour said. “That’s not something we thought would happen.”

That also has Utah’s overall population growing older — which changes the need for schools, different types of housing and transportation. Gouchnour notes that now for every baby boomer living in Utah, there are 2.5 residents who are either millennials or members of Generation X.

“The preferences and thinking of millennials are very different than boomers,” she said. “They expect society to be more local, and more green, and more civically minded or socially driven.”

Lawmakers broke into small groups to talk about how that may affect various issues, and what steps should be taken on a variety of challenges.

In a breakout session on transportation, for example, a group heard that while Utah’s population has been booming, the number of miles residents are driving has been growing even faster — and is expected to do so in the future. Places for new freeways and highways in Utah’s crowded valleys are also disappearing.

Revenues from state and federal gasoline taxes now cover only maintenance costs of existing roads, not expansion. And gasoline tax revenues are projected to decrease amid those growing needs because cars are getting better mileage (so they buy less gasoline) and more electric and alternative fuel vehicles are being used (which escape gasoline taxes totally).

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, suggested that shows the state should pursue finding how to tax miles driven (it will start a pilot program on that for alternate fuel vehicles next year), and maybe charge more for large trucks that create more wear on roads.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Sen. Jake Anderegg on Feb. 7, 2019.

Linda Hull, legislative services director for the Utah Department of Transportation, said that to control congestion, officials may need to look more at charging tolls with higher prices during congestion to spread out demand on roads through the day to help eliminate peak commute times and better use capacity.

Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, a planning agency, said urban areas will not be able to handle future growth only with highways — and must look to mass transit or such things as making communities more walkable to reduce driving.

“It isn’t highway vs. transit,” said Utah Transit Authority Chairman Carlton Christensen. “It’s finding the right solution for the right corridor.”

Gruber also urged combining land use and transportation planning to solve problems with both, such as planning higher-density housing around rail stops — which tends to preserve single-housing areas elsewhere and allow more people to choose transit.

“We need to integrate and do all of the above — not one or the other,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.