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How Utah can seize opportunities to build for the future, from the Editorial Board

President Joe Biden, with a bipartisan group of senators, speaks Thursday June 24, 2021, outside the White House in Washington. Biden invited members of the group of 21 Republican and Democratic senators to discuss the infrastructure plan. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

It is not so much a perfect storm as a series of hopeful squalls, strands of opportunity that should be seized, by Utah and by the United States, to wisely invest for our common future.

From an unexpected flow of cash in Utah to a long-overdue meeting of the minds in Congress, we are lucky to have the financial and the political means to meet our state’s, our nation’s, our people’s needs now and into the future. As long as political gamesmanship or paralysis don’t get in the way.

In Utah

The Utah Legislature may soon find itself with as much as $3 billion more in revenue than it booked last year. Federal pandemic and recovery assistance, combined with a state economy that is roaring back from a quarantine recession that was never as deep as many of us feared, gives our state an opportunity to invest deeply in its many needs.

Rather than follow the knee-jerk impulse to carve out a large tax cut, lawmakers should realize that such givebacks turn into small potatoes for most families but, bundled together, provide the means to invest for the common good in areas from education to transportation to the environment and housing.

The point is not just to throw money at things, even good things, but to have a plan and to raise our standards, to accommodate our inevitable growth in ways that don’t leave Utah looking like a collapsed beachfront condominium.

In the canyons

Speaking of plans, the Utah Department of Transportation has been looking at the increasing problem of too many people, in too many cars, trying to get up Little Cottonwood Canyon on their way to the Snowbird and Alta ski resorts. And they have put two ideas — large and expensive ideas — before us.

One is to widen State Route 210 enough to add a dedicated bus lane to carry skiers up and down the canyon. The other is to build a gondola system. Either would be expensive — upwards of half a billion to build and millions more every year to operate — and each has pluses and minuses.

Buses are familiar and more adaptable to seasonal needs, though widening the highway would disrupt the environment and the buses, at least as now planned, would run on dirty diesel fuel. They are also more vulnerable to clogged traffic and avalanches. The gondola is a Euro-style amenity that might be seen as an end in itself, but to some would be an eyesore rising above the mountains.

It’s a difficult and expensive choice. It should be made carefully and in maximum transparency. You are asked to weigh in, by UDOT and by The Tribune.

In Washington

President Joe Biden and a handful of Senate Republicans, including Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney, have struck at least the outline of a deal to pour $579 billion in new spending into overdue and essential infrastructure projects.

The mutual accommodation was made possible in part by the fact that the agreed-upon package does not require a tax hike, which makes Republicans happy, even as it fulfills the Democrats’ desire to include things that aren’t just ribbons of concrete, such as passenger rail and other mass transit projects as well as improving internet access and expanding the use of electric vehicles.

And it doesn’t hurt that there are some — though still not enough — members of both parties who are tired of eternal gridlock, who see that the purpose of Congress is to strike deals, to compromise for the common good. Biden and Romney still have their work cut out, putting out fires, holding the votes on each side of the aisle in line and not allowing their very different ideas of the perfect to get in the way of what they have both decided is good.

Looming over the bipartisan infrastructure deal, which isn’t likely to have a vote until after the July 4 holiday, is the more partisan one, supported so far only by Democrats, which would spend even more billions, would raise corporate and high-end taxes, and has an even less cement-and-steel definition of what counts as infrastructure.

Biden’s American Families Plan is focused on education, nutrition and aid to families, in the form of grants, tax credits, child care and paid leave for workers. It would pay for four years of education — two in preschool and two in community college — by raising taxes and closing loopholes for the top earners.

That proposal came out of the gate with an estimated price tag of $1.8 trillion. That’s too rich for Romney and, probably, every other Republican. Though, in a less polarized world, it would win at least partial support from not only Romney-style Republicans but also from Utah’s other senator, Mike Lee, who has spoken eloquently about the need for Americans to acquire the kind of social capital necessary for those who seek to climb their way out of poverty.

In each of these cases, the hazard to be avoided is not that we spend too much, or too little, but that we make decisions based on partisanship, habit and fear. We can do the greatest good for the greatest number, improve lives, boost the economy and have many accomplishments we can point to when our grandchildren ask us what we did with our opportunities.

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