More Utahns don’t like growth, study finds. What we can do about it, Editorial Board writes

Our state needs more affordable housing and a robust public transit system.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Exchange is a high-profile $124.3 million transit-oriented development on 400 South with three new interconnected buildings: Mya, a mixed-income apartment complex; The Shop, with work-live spaces; and Avia, a luxury apartment complex.

Asking whether one is for or against rapid population growth in Utah, particularly in its already booming urban areas, is sort of like asking whether one is for or against wind and water. Things like that come without asking anyone’s permission. It’s a matter of how communities choose to handle them.

It’s time to make some choices.

Even though Utah’s rate of growth is expected to slow somewhat compared to its 18% spike over the last decade, what’s now a population of 3.3 million is expected to rise to a 5.5 million headcount by 2060.

A new survey released by Envision Utah shows that a, well, growing number of Utah residents feel that growth is becoming more trouble than it is worth, with maybe a quarter of us thinking it might be time to put a limit to it. As if there was a legal or practical way to do that.

As recently as 2014, some 42% of Utahns thought growth would improve the quality of life in their communities — through economic opportunities, boosted tax bases and cultural diversity — while 35% thought growth meant such negatives as crowded schools, traffic snarls and crime.

In just seven years, the numbers have flipped. Now, 42% of those surveyed expect growth to harm the local quality of life while 36% think it will make things better.

The survey also shows that many of us are perceptive enough to see that among the most pressing matters are how to provide enough affordable quality housing for those who are born here and those who are going to continue to move in, and how to move all those people around once they’re here.

There are hints that Utah’s political class is starting to catch on to the fact that it will be up to them to provide leadership in meeting the need for housing projects that aren’t marketed only to young urban professionals who can afford rents of $2,000 a month. And that it will be up to them to make public transit attractive enough that people at all economic levels will be eager to ride it.

The former is not only a matter of shelters and transition housing for the homeless — though that continues to be a challenge — but also the financial, political and cultural hurdles to the creation of housing for working families in high-density, walkable, multi-use and transit-linked neighborhoods.

The latter got a boost the other day when the Utah Transit Authority and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced an experiment that will make all UTA services free to ride during the month of February.

That gloomy month is a good time for such a test, as it is often a time of awful air quality and getting as many filthy cars as possible off the road is the most important. It also might be a bad time, as many of us are still worried about breathing in the confined spaces of buses and trains in a time of pandemic, worried enough that even a free ride might not bring us on board.

Whatever happens during UTA’s Free February, a no-fare public transit service is something the Wasatch Front needs all the time, something that would be accomplished by a bill now before the Legislature. State Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, has put forward House Bill 164 which would make all UTA routes free to ride permanently.

Fares now provide only some 15% of UTA revenue, a gap that it should be able to close, in part, by ending its complex fare system and collection efforts and by retiring all those often-malfunctioning TRAX ticket machines.

Addressing our housing and transportation woes will also help with other problems, such as water shortages, poor air quality and a demographic shift that is hollowing out the Salt Lake City School District even as it overwhelms suburban districts.

Smart urbanization, rather than ever-more-sprawling suburbanization, can fill in parts of our cities with multi-unit housing that is attractive to families — families who will repopulate Salt Lake City schools, spreading the load and making use of existing buildings.

It is telling that, in the Envision Utah survey, those who still see growth as a benefit are more likely to be young, urban and politically liberal. This is the growing demographic, the rising generation, that isn’t afraid of urbanization, high-rise living, multi-use and multi-ethnic neighborhoods and public transit.

Utah should be about meeting these demands, and building communities where the next generation can thrive.