Tribune Editorial: Utah should put its federal windfall into things that will last

Affordable housing, public transit and access to broadband will stay with us long after pandemic is over.

Members of the House of Representatives are partitioned by plexiglass as the Utah State Legislature opens the 2021 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Joe Biden calls it all “Build Back Better.”

The Republicans who dominate the Utah Legislature will probably prefer a different name for it. Something, probably, about “The Utah Way.”

Whatever it’s called, the $1.5 billion windfall coming to the state of Utah as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March provides a wonderful opportunity to invest in things the state needed anyway. Things that directly or indirectly deal with not only restarting the economy after the shutdowns and slowdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic but also making our communities better, safer and healthier places to live going forward.

Tragedy often provides opportunity. Whether its an earthquake, a war, a fire or a global depression — all things that nobody wants — the chance to build a home, a community, a state or a nation that was better than the one we had before is the best way to move ahead. The same is true of coming back from the economic and social damage caused by a pandemic.

Utah lawmakers, who may gather for a special session as soon as May 19, seem to have the right ideas in mind. A set of priorities circulated by leadership stresses that the money should go to things that deal with long-term challenges and have lasting benefits, projects that might not have been funded otherwise due to high price tags, ideas that are beneficial to the state as a whole and will leave us with assets rather than obligation or debt.

Some of the more obvious targets for the new money are problems we all already knew were among our greatest challenges. Affordable housing. Air quality. Broadband internet connections for lower-income neighborhoods and rural areas. Mental health services. A public health infrastructure that will be ready for the next pandemic, or future waves of this one.

Even if these needs don’t seem to have a direct health benefit, there isn’t much in the way of building a 21st century infrastructure that won’t improve our quality — and length — of life.

A large homeless population, whether in shelters or congregated in tent colonies, is a virus-friendly environment that threatens the whole of a community. Seeding newer, safer and sustainable housing opportunities will benefit the homeless and everyone else in all of the state’s urban centers.

Closely related to our homelessness problem is the shortage of mental health and substance abuse services available around our state. The state has moved to face that issue as it has put more money into homeless services, but available facilities still fall far short of the need.

Even after the coronavirus becomes an unpleasant memory, the respiratory health of all Utahns will continue to be threatened by poor air quality. We already know what we need to do about that, and that’s to beef up our urban transportation systems with everything from improved commuter and light rail systems, zero-emissions buses, charging stations for electric vehicles, bike and walking paths. Many of those things are already on the drawing board, at one stage or another, and deserve a large share of the money coming to the state and directly to local governments.

The COVID experience has also revealed that many of us, those who spend our workdays seated at a computer, could do those jobs just as well, and often more comfortably, from home, cutting out the need for long and polluting commutes and allowing families to spend more time together. Making sure that state-of-the-art broadband internet connections are a common feature of all neighborhoods, urban and rural, will spread the benefits of telecommuting to more households and more communities.

Going to school online did not work so well for a great many families. That’s partly due to the loss of personal contact that is key to the educational process for many, but also a symptom of the fact that we were not really prepared for such a shift. We didn’t have the hardware, software, connections and training in place and made up a lot of it as we went along. In the future, we must be ready to do better.

And, most obvious, perhaps, is the need for our health care system — public health departments, hospitals, care homes, clinics, schools — to be ready to handle the next pandemic. Because there will be one.

We should not be scrambling for masks, gowns, gloves, oxygen, respirators, testing regimes, vaccination distribution and overflow hospital beds. And we should not be in a position where panicked government officials reach out to, or become a mark for, entrepreneurs who overpromise and underdeliver and leave taxpayers hold the bag for a diversion of funds and attention from the public health experts we should be listening to.

Nothing will make up for the loved ones we lost, the interactions, companionship, personal growth and businesses that suffered, over the past year or more. But we can come out of this stronger, at least in terms of our public structures and services, if we put federal, state and local revenues to the proper use.