Opinion: Blame the Utah Legislature for pothole-filled streets

When Utah drivers travel through the state’s pothole-filled city-county streets, they should not blame local mayors and council members.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A prep crew with the Salt Lake City north district streets division work on filling potholes along North Star Drive near Redwood Road on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

Once again Utah lawmakers completed their annual social gathering without accomplishing much in the way of helpful legislation. That’s especially true with regard to helping Utah city and county governments solve local problems tied to statewide needs.

The most obvious example is local roads. City and county roads have rarely, if ever, been in worse shape than they are today. Potholes are common. Lanes are restricted due to water leaks or long-delayed underground repairs. Thin resurfacing projects break apart too soon after completion. Utility access covers are not level with the roadbeds.

Such road conditions cause accidents and lead to expensive auto repairs or tire damage, not to mention driver frustration.

Many of these dangerous road conditions have existed for decades, stretching back to when the state legislature purposely made it more difficult for local governments to fund local services. According to an extensive study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities over a period of three decades, Utah lawmakers placed limits on the ability of city-county governments to (a) levy additional property taxes and (b) increase existing property tax rates.

The research also shows that, as a result, local governments were forced to reduce expenditures on such things as road maintenance so they can continue to fund such vital services as fire departments, police, waste disposal, parks and lighting. They have also been forced to increase their dependence on sales taxes and to impose additional fees on services such as trash collection and wastewater treatment. Again, such changes impact low income citizens more negatively than they impact higher income residents, another evidence of legislative discrimination against the poor.

Sadly, Utah lawmakers seem to care little about challenges faced by local governments. Legislators gerrymandered their districts so that city voters have limited influence over who is elected or what happens on Capitol Hill. For example, senators representing Salt Lake City campaign for votes from not only the city but also from rural areas stretching to the Arizona border. They claim their goal is to balance city and rural votes, but the real goal is to dilute political influence from urban areas.

With regard to wear and tear on city streets, much of the traffic in urban areas originates outside city boundaries. Many commuters live in one county but work or shop in others. That means poor local road conditions are a state problem as much as they are a local problem. A rational state legislature would find ways to help city and county governments repair and maintain roads used by all the state’s citizens. In recent years, the state has experienced annual revenue surpluses, money that could have been used to help local governments repair roads and streets. Instead, lawmakers use surpluses to subsidize private schools and reward affluent state residents.

It would also make sense to direct some of the gasoline tax money collected by the state toward city and county road maintenance. After all, a large share of gasoline tax money originates within city limits. The problem will grow even worse as electric vehicles replace gasoline-powered cars and trucks. Lawmakers will surely find ways to tax cars that use electricity. Most electric vehicles will likely be housed in urban areas since recharging requirements limit their range. That means taxes imposed by the legislature on electric vehicles will be paid primarily by city residents and urban commuters, even though the resulting revenue will be used to maintain state highways.

The primary point here is that when Utah drivers travel through the state’s pothole-filled city-county streets, they should not blame local mayors and council members. The real villains are the governor and members of the state legislature.

Don Gale.

Don Gale has studied journalism, taught journalism, and practiced journalism in Utah for more than half a century.

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