Stuff is getting built in Utah. In spite of concerns that the uncertainty of federal funding is holding back construction of essential infrastructure improvements across the country, somehow Utah is barreling forward with highway and transit investment, and planning for more.
In mid-April I spent three days in the Beehive State as a guest of the Northern Utah chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar. Instead of my usual fly-in-give speech-fly out schedule, they convinced me to spend a few days talking with elected officials, the Salt Lake City Chamber and its newly-formed Utah Mobility Coalition, as well as the movers-and-shakers in transportation agencies. Now I know why. Utah has a good story to tell and gave me hope that there are some places in the country that understand investment in transportation is about anticipating economic growth and are doing something about it rather than just talking a good game.
Throughout the trip I asked people this question: “What is the ‘secret sauce’ that makes Utahans able to do so much in the face of economic downturn, squeezed federal budgets, and an abundance of conservative politicians?” Let me describe some of my impressions of the trip and then I will offer some ideas in conclusion.
Transit in Utah
As many people know, I grew up in Wyoming. In the West people drive; transit is for big city folks and liberals. Why get on a train or bus when you can get behind the wheel of your own car and experience the freedom of the road?
Folks in the Salt Lake City metro area think differently than the rural Westerners I remember from my childhood. They see the coming population growth. They respond to demands of businesses that want their employees to have multiple ways to get to work, and want to locate in a place with a good quality of life.
Today, TRAX—the light rail—system is heavily-used and we barely squeezed on the train headed from the Salt Lake Chamber out to the University of Utah which was packed with students, professors and staff, and patrons of the huge medical complex that overlooks the valley. The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) is preparing to open a new commuter rail line going to the south of Salt Lake: Frontrunner Salt Lake to Provo opens on December 10. The new TRAX line to the airport is under construction and projected to open in 2013. The Sugarhouse Street Car is in final design.
Then there is the proposal for “Mountain Transportation” to link the Salt Lake City Airport to the resort areas in the Wasatch Mountains. Business, labor, environmental groups, developers, planners and citizens are looking at how to provide better transportation along with opportunities for economic development and environmental benefits through public transit into the mountains. It is still going to take work to come together around just how to get the job done, but I saw real motivation and optimism about the opportunities—even after I gave a group from UTA, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, interested consultants and planners, the Alta ski area and the State Senate the third degree about how they could even contemplate such a large project requiring public and private cooperation, complex (at least to me) engineering, and what is probably a big chunk of change.
On the Road
Going into my conversation with UDOT’s Executive Director, John Njord, and his deputy, Carlos Braceras, I expected to hear that multiple extensions of federal highway and transit programs and the corresponding uncertainty over funding levels was the biggest problem facing UDOT. Instead, I discovered that federal funds make up only 17 percent of UDOT’s highway program, and UDOT is concentrating those funds on maintenance projects because of the federal requirements that make every federal dollar more costly to use than state or local funds.
Maybe that is why the largest Interstate reconstruction project in the United States, on I-15 in Utah County, is being paid for by 100 percent state funds. Yes, that is right, no federal funds are being used on this Interstate Highway System project.
John and Carlos gave me a clear picture of why reform is needed in transportation policy. From the environmental process, to project delivery requirements, to Buy America mandates (that go so far as to require even a spring in a sprinkler to be certified as made in the USA), it is no wonder that Utah is not the only state to focus federal funds instead of sprinkling them across several complex capital projects and attaching federal requirements (and additional cost) even when one dollar is part of the mix.
Andrew Gruber, Executive Director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, blew my mind when he handed me the Unified Statewide Long Range Transportation Plan over breakfast one morning. The Unified Plan brings together the plans and visions of the state and the metropolitan planning organizations, articulates a set of common, coordinated assumptions about growth and financing, and produced a statewide, prioritized project list covering 2011-2040. Perhaps there is another state in the nation that has done this, but I have not seen one yet.
Not All’s Perfect
Lest I give the impression that all is right with the world in Utah, I heard some concerns about the future. For example:
Transit operations are scaled back. While there I noted that the TRAX system is shut down on Memorial Day. In Washington, DC, shutting down the Metro on Memorial Day would be unheard of given the massive number of tourists coming to town. But UTA General Manager Michael Allegra said the service cuts are a function of making tough decisions when money is tight.
Sustaining the growth is a concern for those who design and build infrastructure. The push to build and rebuild in Utah has been helpful for transportation construction-related industries, but some in the design and engineering sector mentioned concerns about the pipeline of work to come.
Securing resources for maintenance is an issue. One legislator noted that maintenance was the next big challenge since “Maintenance is not sexy. Legislators like ribbon cuttings and the ability to show their constituents what they have done, and it is hard to cut a ribbon on repairs.”
What is the Secret Sauce?
There is a term I heard from Robin Riggs, the man chosen by the Salt Lake Chamber to lead the Utah Mobility Coalition: “Utah Exceptionalism.” In short, it is Utahans’ extraordinary ability to outperform the rest of the country when times are tough.
Transportation infrastructure today is a clear example of Utah Exceptionalism. But where does it come from?
First, the leaders I met were also proud of Utah’s sound fiscal decision making, including a conservative approach to using debt, that helped the state weather the most recent economic downturn.
Second, collaboration—people getting together and working toward a common goal—seems to be a default way of doing business. When I asked why that was, the answer routinely was, “It is part of our history: we are the Beehive State.” Whole books could be written on the Envision Utah public-private partnership to engage citizens in planning for Utah’s future.
But finally I think the secret sauce, the foundation of Utah Exceptionalism, is something I heard time and time again: a dedication to getting things done for the good of their community, their state and the future. More than once people said to me, “We have to do these things so our kids have a great quality of life and a strong economic future.” In Washington, that would sound like a trite talking point. In Utah, it was genuine, and there were actions to accompany the words.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.
(This article originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of Eno Brief)