Opinion: The four truths about Utah’s growth and mobility

Residents must stay civically engaged.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fresh snow on homes in Herriman on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

Recently, the Utah Foundation hosted a panel of local transportation and government leaders to discuss policy solutions that will inform transportation planning and decision-making. Panel participants discussed how trails, complete streets, first and last-mile transit access and active-transportation connectivity impact the quality of life for residents.

From that workshop, four truths emerged.

Truth #1: Utah and the Wasatch Front are growing at a record pace.

Utah has seen colossal growth in recent years. New jobs and flourishing industries have spiked significant growth, with projections estimating that the state’s population will grow from 3.5 million in 2023 to 5.5 million in 2060. We have seen tremendous new development across the region and new roadway infrastructure to support it.

Truth #2: Traditional peak commuting patterns have changed.

The five-day-a-week commute to downtown is gone: Along with a growing population, evolving workforce trends have changed travel patterns on a broad scale. Since the pandemic forced many companies to embrace remote work, employers have adopted hybrid work policies that disrupt the typical predictable flow of traffic into and out of major cities.

Meeting these new dispersed travel needs will require regional connectivity that allows us to remain nimble with different modes of transportation. Regional connectivity includes all-weather bike and pedestrian facilities and new and innovative forms of transit like Utah Transit Authority’s On Demand services in Tooele County.

Truth #3: Utah and the Wasatch Front have excellent transportation plans in place.

To support the shared vision of better connections between jobs, housing, recreation and educational facilities, Utah’s urban metropolitan planning organizations collaborated on an integrated plan, known as the Unified Transportation Plan.

The Unified Transportation Plan is a nationally recognized model of integrated transportation planning, developed by the Cache Metropolitan Planning Organization, Wasatch Front Regional Council, Mountainland Association of Governments, the Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority. The plan is designed to help Utah overcome growth obstacles and improve the connection between transportation and housing, the environment, land use, economic development and access to opportunities.

Truth #4 State and federal funding for development is currently at an all-time high.

The Utah Department of Transportation’s Executive Director Carlos Braceras recently announced that its budget for the next six years would be $14.3 billion or over $2 billion a year to “to build and improve our roads, trails, and transit system in collaboration with local planning organizations, cities and counties.”

Likewise, Gov. Spencer Cox announced just over a year ago the creation of a statewide paved bikeway network, and in March of this year, state senators and representatives passed SB 185, which allocated $90 million to create the state’s Active Transportation Investment Fund to realize Gov. Cox’s vision. This fund will cover costs associated with planning, designing, constructing, and maintaining a network of paved trails for pedestrians and bikers throughout Utah. The legislature also allocated $45 million annually to support this vision going forward.

On the federal side, the funding package from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has provided billions for upgrading our roads, bridges, transit systems, airports and more. It is part of the biggest federal infrastructure investment in half a century.

Our cities, towns and transportation agencies are all poised to take advantage of all these incredible funding opportunities to design and build the complete streets that they always wanted.

So, what do we do with all these opportunities?

While it is heartening to see that state leaders, agencies and other groups are investing in projects that will support Utah’s growth, we need residents to stay civically engaged.

Residents can start by being aware of land and infrastructure developments on the horizon and continue voting for leaders who support forward-thinking transportation plans. All these truths leave us, the citizens of Utah, the hard work of making sure that these plans happen.

I encourage all of us to get involved in the planning of our neighborhoods: Make sure the sidewalks, bike paths and transit stops are all incorporated into the plans. It is in our hands to realize the new vision for mobility in our communities with this once-in-a-lifetime investment in infrastructure for all users. Let’s get it right.

Dominic Spaethling

Dominic Spaethling is the vice president and Salt Lake City office leader at infrastructure solutions firm HNTB. He is also a Utah Foundation board member.

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