What the new SLC airport can teach us about Utah’s growing pains, Tribune editorial board writes

Planning the growth of a community is like booking a flight. Get the most value you can for your money. And plan ahead.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Travelers ride a cart through the tunnel to the South Concourse, at the Salt Lake International Airport, on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Our shiny new Salt Lake City International Airport is taking a fair amount of flak from passengers who find the distances they have to walk to get from the terminal entrance to their gate are a lot longer than they were in the airport’s previous incarnation.

To some extent, such a situation is inevitable when you build a larger airport to handle larger numbers of travelers boarding larger airplanes. People who want small airports should fly on small aircraft out of small cities.

But Salt Lake City is not a small city. It is getting bigger by the day, as are the surrounding communities up and down the Wasatch Front and beyond. And, as they grow, we are going to have to put a lot of thought, and a lot of money, into figuring out how to get around and how to live here.

No amount of planning or funding will eliminate the need for those who live and govern here to adapt. To consider choosing where to live, where to work, where to go to school or to have fun, based on how it will work in a rapidly growing, often gridlocked, population.

As with the airport, the answer for the individual may often be to get there earlier and be ready to walk. The answer for the infrastructure planners and builders may be more modes of transportation.

It is fair to scrutinize the steps airport designers and managers took to minimize the number of steps passengers might have to walk — or run, depending on how long it took to find a place to park and get through security. The new $4 billion airport has moving walkways and some of those golf cart-type vehicles to assist the elderly or those not up to a brisk hike that could be more than half a mile. Though, some have argued, not enough.

What next?

But an airport, a city, a state, can’t get bigger without growing pains. Those discomforts can be ameliorated, if we are willing to spend enough money, but never eliminated. And saying we are going to find a way not to grow is unrealistic.

The new airport was paid for by those who use it, at no cost to the general taxpayers, through fees and taxes charged to the airlines, rental car companies, restaurants in the terminal and, of course, ticket-buyers.

A lot of the money we will need for other infrastructure upgrades is available from the federal government through the billions headed our way from coronavirus relief measures and, soon, we may hope, from whatever giant, or super-giant, infrastructure package President Joe Biden and members of Congress are now arguing about.

Public planning and public spending must increasingly focus on public transit approaches. There is just too little land, and too many people, for anything else. We cannot just keep widening and increasing the speed limits on Interstate highways and surface streets, as they fill up again just as soon as the ribbon is cut.

Buses and trains are expensive to put in and to maintain but, properly planned, are the way of the future.

That includes dealing with the impassable traffic jams often found on the roads climbing to the ski resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Alternatives already partially thought-through include a fleet of gondolas skimming above the mountains, or a new railway paralleling the state highways. Either will be expensive, and part of its purpose would be not just to get people to the top but also to put a meter on the number of people allowed to be there at any one time.

Relevant offices are also considering what should be done at the site of the soon-to-be-replaced state prison in Draper, and a focus is wisely, again, being put on public transit as opposed to private automobiles.

Ideas can be big and loud, such as rail connections from Salt Lake City to St. George and/or Moab. Or they can be precise technical fixes, such as offered by Sen. Mitt Romney’s Smart Intersections Act, a bill to fund high-tech upgrades for traffic signals in a way that speeds traffic, cuts pollution and reduces accidents.

Public infrastructure must also be seen to include housing, publicly funded or subsidized, to create more affordable places to live and communities that are integrated into transit systems to cut down on sprawl and traffic.

The vision should extend beyond our fast-growing urban landscapes to Utah’s rural areas, with a focus on the kind of jobs and economic growth that leaves everyone’s dependence on fossil fuels behind.

Planning the growth of a community is like booking a flight. Get the most value you can for your money. And plan ahead.