“I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold.”
Utah has some decisions to make.
An interwoven set of problems presents itself as a lack of affordable housing, snarled traffic that affects people on their way to work, to school and to play, and air quality that, while it’s not as bad as it might of been, still falls far short of what we should accept.
The longer we wait to address these woes, the more difficult, and more costly, the solutions will be.
Utah’s private sector has proven itself to be dynamic and creative. Unemployment is low. We have become popular with the high-tech and bio-tech sets, in large part because the lure of our public lands, outdoor recreational opportunities and educational institutions helps recruit the level of talent that is the envy of any economy. We also live in a culture that values large families, families that, more than is typical in America, express the hope that their children and grandchildren can continue to live nearby.
All that means that our population is among the fastest growing in the nation and will remain so. There is little reason to believe that Utah, the Wasatch Front in particular, will reach a saturation point where growth stops. And there is evidence that regulations and public spending aimed at making our growth more livable won’t kill the golden goose.
Yes, American Rust Belt cities lost significant population, but only when key industries collapsed, something we neither want nor expect to happen here. The examples of metropolitan areas from San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro to Mumbai demonstrate that growth doesn’t stop, even when living conditions deteriorate. Those who do flee California for Utah mostly manage to bid up the price of housing here without lowering it there.
It is just a question of whether we grow ugly, or grow wisely. Grow in a way that minimizes inequality, or in a manner that makes the good life increasingly available only to the rich.
Government has the muscle and the money. But businesses have influence, in where they choose to locate, their support for telecommuting and/or making transit passes a benefit of employment, and their support for candidates who will work for these solutions. That’s true of individuals as well, as they choose where to live and work, how they will get around, and for whom they will vote.
It is up to all of us to steer our future in a direction that is not just bigger, but better.
In the most recent session of the Utah Legislature, lawmakers moved to address homelessness and affordability with a new state body devoted to addressing homelessness, additional funds and instructions that cities allow such housing options as allowing the owners of single-family homes to rent out their basements. Municipalities, including Salt Lake City, are also looking for ways to ease the problem.
But that’s coming too late to help, for example, the working-class renters being displaced by luxury apartment developments in neighborhoods such as 200 North and 600 West or 200 South near 900 East. We need to see more aggressive action, spending public money and giving incentives to private capital, to preserve existing affordable housing and encourage the building of much more.
Working in our favor is a generational trend toward not just acceptance of, but an affinity for, higher-density housing. Those projects are often paired with or attract shopping, dining and recreation amenities that, a recent University of Utah study demonstrates, are the opposite of the impact that devalues nearby single-family homes. The ability to walk or take public transit to urban hot spots increasingly breaks in favor of any property’s resale value, which should help to ease the not-in-my-backyard headwinds.
Urban Utah is fast approaching a situation where the only way to build enough highways to handle all of our cars would be to bulldoze all our homes, stores and office buildings. Even if all those cars become electric, reducing a huge source of air pollution, they would still take up room.
The solution, of course, is to expand and improve our public transit options, generally in concert with the aforementioned housing developments.
The Utah Transit Authority has spent billions of, often borrowed, dollars to try to keep up with the demand. A great deal of that has gone into rail — TRAX light rail and the FrontRunner commuter system. They are gobsmackingly expensive to build but generally successful because trains are Euro-cool, coveted by mayors, adored by planners, favored over other forms of transit by riders and run often and more or less on time.
Traffic is not only a frustration in the commuter working world, it also is becoming a major problem for where we play, specifically the national parks and the ski resorts of Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. If access to those areas, which belong to all of us, isn’t going to be restricted to the wealthy, transit options — including, yes, a $1 billion train up to Alta — must be thought through.
High-density housing, walkable neighborhoods, 21st century public transit that more people want to ride, to work and to play. All that will take a bite out of air that you can sometimes taste.
The fact that these problems are not in separate spheres, but all intermingled, actually makes them more approachable.
If we resolve to solve them.