The Utah Department of Transportation has announced its summer road construction priorities, and the top 10 projects alone add up to $2.1 billion. The list includes a couple of new roads, but in most cases it's widening existing roads and replacing bridges and exits on freeways. All pretty practical stuff.
UDOT’s deputy director acknowledged the work will be a burden for drivers, “but without construction and improvements, we eventually get bogged down and we become California — and we have those traffic jams that none of us like to be stuck in.”
With all due respect, that is the classic attitude that produces sprawl. In reality, we can't just asphalt our way out of this. It may be too much to ask the road builders to think that way, but someone needs to. And with regard to the Wasatch Front projects, it's also about air quality. Our lungs can't take more lanes.
The $2.1 billion for UDOT's top 10 projects is the total cost of the projects, not just this year’s cost. Still, it’s the same amount the state’s mass transit agency, Utah Transit Authority, owes in bond debt for building out its rail lines several years ago. And those are just 10 of 169 UDOT road projects this summer.
Meanwhile, UTA has to spend more each year on its debt payments — $119.6 million — than it does on operating its buses — $102.1 million. That debt service keeps UTA from being able to expand service at nights and weekends and add routes in congested areas.
Would it be practical to just cancel those 10 projects and pay off UTA’s debt instead? No, but neither is an endless expansion of roads. One of the key selling points of UTA's recent reform was the promise of a closer relationship with UDOT so transportation could be treated more holistically. That means recognizing that our transit costs are a fraction of what we spend on roads, but transit’s benefits rise as population increases.
UDOT fears California-type gridlock, but California is ahead of us in turning this corner. It is investing a larger percentage of its transportation money in alternatives.
Be careful out there, drivers. UDOT and its contractors are doing important work this summer to keep you moving. Slow down and keep those workers safe.
And maybe UDOT’s leaders can tap the brakes a little, too. The road ahead may not always be a road.