Opinion: Utah needs an I-15 expansion and more public transportation

These projects will have the greatest impact on those of us who plan to spend the next half-century in Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes border both sides of the I-15 freeway, in Woods Cross, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.

The Utah Legislature has spent portions of the latest session highlighting a tight fiscal situation, but that didn’t stop politicians from pushing for another massive infrastructure project, the $1 billion redevelopment of the Fairpark neighborhood tied to a potential Major League Baseball stadium.

As a teenager, I am interested in debates about these projects because they will have the greatest impact on those of us who plan to spend the next half-century in Utah living with the consequences of these decisions.

The Wasatch Front Regional Council has recently confirmed a similarly massive and expensive infrastructure project — the expansion of Interstate 15 (I-15) over a 17-mile stretch, from Salt Lake City to Farmington. With a price tag of $3.7 billion, this proposal has sparked debate, especially considering its impact on the state’s budget. However, a closer examination reveals that this expansion is not only necessary but also strategically aligned with the state’s growth, upcoming events like the 2034 Olympics and the need for improved transportation efficiency.

One of the primary motives behind this decision is Utah’s rapidly growing population. The Policy Institute of the University of Utah estimates that the state’s population will double by 2060. Failing to address the corresponding increase in traffic would result in congestion during peak hours, potentially escalating travel times from 20 minutes to an hour in the coming years. To avert this scenario, the expansion of I-15 is projected to reduce traffic by an impressive 49% to 55% during peak hours, ensuring smoother commutes for residents and visitors alike.

Utah’s preparations for the 2034 Olympics further underscore the urgency of this infrastructure project. With upgrades planned for venues like the Provo Peak Arena, as well as events in Park City and Ogden, the state anticipates a surge in population and tourism. The expanded I-15 is essential to accommodate the higher density of people during this period, thereby mitigating traffic-related issues and potential accidents. By preparing the roads for increased snowfall and population influx, Utah is strategically positioning itself to host a successful and logistically sound Olympic Games.

Despite the merits of the proposal, Mayor Erin Mendenhall opposes it, advocating instead for an emphasis on improving public transportation within the city. While enhancing public transportation accessibility is commendable, it may not fully address the urgency of intercity travel. The example of the UVX (Utah Valley Express) project in Provo and Orem, which increased boardings by 1 million within a year, demonstrates the positive impact of strategic investment in public transportation. Legislators could draw inspiration from such successes to expand free transportation options in Utah, particularly in densely populated areas.

[Do you support plans to expand I-15? Why or why not? Tell us here.]

Acknowledging the importance of public transportation, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is collaborating with the Utah Transit Authority to add a parallel track to the FrontRunner commuter rail. This initiative aims to increase frequency, encouraging more people to opt for public transit. This dual approach, widening I-15 and enhancing public transportation, demonstrates a comprehensive strategy to address both intracity and intercity transportation needs.

The proposal to widen I-15 for $3.7 billion dollars is a forward-thinking investment that aligns with Utah’s growth trajectory and the upcoming 2034 Olympics. By addressing the pressing issue of traffic congestion, the state is not only preparing for immediate challenges but also laying the groundwork for sustainable transportation solutions in the long run. The simultaneous focus on improving public transportation complements the freeway expansion, creating a well-rounded strategy to accommodate the increasing population and enhancing Utah’s overall infrastructure, which is a development I appreciate as a young person who will have to depend on that infrastructure for decades to come.

Annalisa Annarelli

Annalisa Annarelli, Provo, is a junior at Timpview High School. This essay was the winner of the Seventh Annual Utah High School Essay Contest on Civility in Politics and Public Life sponsored by Westminster’s Honors College and underwritten by WCF Insurance. This year’s contest drew entries from 310 students from 42 high schools across the state.

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