Saying you want to build more public transit along the Wasatch Front because you want to encourage development is like saying you want to build more hospitals in China because you want to encourage coronavirus.
You build hospitals because people are already sick, or are going to be. And you build more public transit because people are already here, or are going to be.
There is no need for the state and local governments hereabouts to do anything along the lines of tax breaks or grants to boost that growth. Or have our elected officials not looked out of a window recently and seen all those construction cranes?
There is a need for public infrastructure to handle that growth. It’s going to be expensive, and the best way is to make the inevitable growth pay for the transit, affordable housing and other needs, not the other way around.
In the long run, transit to encourage growth and transit to accommodate growth might not look that different from one another. Either way, the state, cities, counties and the Utah Transit Authority will be dropping billions on buses, bus lanes, light rail, commuter rail, bike paths, walking trails, highways, interchanges, streets, roundabouts, sidewalks, bridges and all that jazz, trying to keep up with the skyrocketing number of people and cars that come here and move around.
The problem is, even if we don’t build the transportation systems we ought to have, there is no reason to assume that the growth will stop.
In a logical world, there might come a day when intelligent folks would look at the I-15 corridor and decide that staying here, or moving here, is a goofy idea because the highways are already gridlocked and the housing is already too expensive and the air is already deadly.
But when in human history has that happened?
The whole of our existence has been ever-larger conglomerations of people. New York. Los Angeles. San Francisco. Seattle. London. Rome. Bangalore. Mumbai. Singapore. Rio. Shanghai. Places get dirty and smelly and overcrowded and expensive and push people onto the streets, and people still move there because they think there are economic or educational opportunities or just because it’s exciting.
Exceptions, places such as Detroit and Buffalo, are different because of unique circumstances, usually a sharp downturn in a specific industry, a too-big-to-fail part of the local economy that failed anyway. Or moved away.
Ideas being floated now include expanding the TRAX light rail system into what will soon be the old state prison site at the Point of the Mountain in and near Draper, at a cost of maybe $1.2 billion. Ogden wants the Legislature to cough up a comparatively paltry $10 million to help it with the roads and public utilities that will be necessary to handle expected growth at in near Hill Air Force Base.
Meanwhile, opposition to the ginormous Olympia Hills project in the southwest part of Salt Lake County — the part of it that isn’t just an opposition to people who live in apartments instead of bungalows — is based on concern that the added population would put way too much strain on public infrastructure. Mostly roads.
Olympia Hills, like the land within the benighted inland port territory near Salt Lake International Airport, is difficult to control because most of the land is in private hands. Government doesn’t have the power to just say no. So what is necessary is both a detailed — and expensive — planning process and the stiffest possible level of fees to minimize negative impacts and have the developers pay their own way.
The old prison site offers more opportunity for wise growth because the dirt is owned by the state. As the state sells, leases or develops the property, it should hold out for tons of revenue that will be necessary to build transit, schools and other public services.
The fear that we might levy fees so high that people don’t build here is not realistic. Any development or jobs we lose are things we didn’t have room for.
If the redevelopment of the Point of the Mountain area doesn’t pay for itself, many times over, in a relatively short period of time, then we’d be better off making it into a park.
George Pyle is the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.