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Utah’s growth presents a huge challenge, the Editorial Board writes, but we know what we need to do

Political leaders need to stop fussing around the margins and face real quality-of-life issues.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New development construction on the western edge of Magna on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.

Some of the people whose job it is to think deep thoughts about the future of Utah have, in just the last couple of weeks, dropped a lot of information that should get us thinking about how to manage our inevitable growth over the coming decades.

The data and conclusions are interesting and important. But little about it should really surprise anyone who has been paying the slightest attention.

Utah’s population is getting bigger, fast. The 3.5 million neighbors we have today are expected to become nearly 5 million by 2050

It is also getting older, more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and political leanings. More and more of our growth is due to people who never lived here before — or who used to live here and now, facing COVID and urban living conditions even worse than those in Utah, want to come back.

Our once sky-high birth rate that was the primary engine of our population increase has declined significantly. It dropped below replacement level in 2018.

This growth means it is getting more and more difficult for many of modest means to find an affordable place to live and for any of us, no matter how wealthy, to get around.

The economic growth that our political and business leaders have been so understandably proud of is about to outstrip — if it hasn’t already — the ability of our overstressed system of public education to provide a workforce with necessary skills and the ability to think creatively.

One of the many attempts to rank the states by their economic strength and promise, put out earlier this year by the CNBC business channel, tellingly rates Utah high on the things that are the responsibility of the private sector or areas where the government, arguably, should just stay out of the way. Those include such things as the overall economy, workforce and business friendliness.

But we do poorly on the metrics that require an active and well-run government: education, infrastructure and what the article calls “life, health and inclusion.”

Locally, the Kem C. Gardner Institute at the University of Utah and the expert surveyors at Envision Utah recently released a pair of reports that lay out the state’s challenges and a lot of data on what most Utahns think should be done about them.

There is general understanding that we need to rethink the way we build and grow to handle a booming population, most of which will be drawn to the already swelling Wasatch Front. Acre upon acre of single-family, picket-fenced houses, placed a snarled Interstate drive away from where their occupants work, cannot be the model of the future.

Our changing demographics can prove bane or boon, depending on how we handle it.

People from all over the world — Ivy League grads to impoverished refugees — will bring a new set of voices that must be heeded. Properly respected, this new choir can come up with the ideas we need and can embrace as a community.

What we cannot allow to happen is for the old influential cliques to hold onto their already disproportionate share of power by trying to divide us — by class, race, origin, gender, belief — so we don’t notice that our pockets are being picked.

A larger, more diverse body politic has the potential to get our political house in order. To shift the incestuous mix of economic and political power away from the network of good ol’ boys who thrive on insider knowledge of how to play the game of state tax breaks and grants.

This in group has already expanded beyond its old image of a small cadre of white, LDS, male developers. But the power it holds still undermines the level playing field we need in our economy and the faith we must have in our political institutions.

Those institutions are falling behind in several key areas. Public safety is high on the list.

Crime, mental illness, homelessness are interconnected issues that may require some tough love, but can’t be solved by being kept in their individual silos or by blaming the victims for their pain.

Our system of higher education is an example to the world, but the K-12 public schools aren’t keeping up. And they won’t get any better when all of the attention the schools get is fighting over vouchers for private schools, banning books and measuring the muscle mass of transgender athletes. It will take money the state hasn’t been willing to spend and some bold moves that might trouble both teachers and parents.

Our quality of life — the goose that has laid the golden egg of population growth — can still be protected if we are determined to do so. If we prioritize improving our air quality, conserving water and building a 21st-century transit system.

If we build up rather than out, create micro-hubs of urban living that support both mass transit and walkable neighborhoods, structure tax incentives so that they fall to the benefit of homebuyers and renters rather than real estate speculators.

The good news is that Utah already has much of the tools we need to accomplish all this. A strong balance sheet, decent regulatory environment, educated work force and a deep love and care for our state’s long term future.

We need our public officials, current and future, to stop fussing around the margins. To give up their war on social media (even as they are up to their necks in tweets) and their James Bond cosplay with phony rescuers of kidnapped children. To do the hard work of planning, vision and leadership that Utah has been limping along without for so long.