Unveiling a blueprint for the future: Wasatch Choice 2050

Societies have long recognized the importance of the transportation system in moving goods and people, connecting communities, and providing access to essential services.

Transportation networks are some of the most enduring public spaces in a community. How do we ensure that these public spaces are used in a way that maximizes their benefit?

The answer is in the decades of planning and analysis that happens even before the rubber hits the road. Integral to this transportation and land use planning is the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC).

WFRC is regional in scope, forward-looking in purpose, and collaborative by nature. Comprised of local elected officials, key legislators, and transportation experts, WFRC develops transportation plans, provides technical assistance directly to local communities, and coordinates closely with the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) to identify funding for planned roadway, transit, biking, and walking improvements.

At the helm of the organization is Andrew Gruber, a lawyer from Chicago who moved to Utah with his family eight years ago to take advantage of the state’s excellent quality of life. Gruber says he saw the dysfunction in Chicago’s confrontational politics where power and control dictated decision-making and was refreshed by the more collaborative, forward-thinking approach here in Utah.

“I saw firsthand how short-sighted thinking driven by a ‘politics of the moment’ mentality proved detrimental to communities and the whole state,” says Gruber. “I think it provides a cautionary tale for us because our infrastructure becomes much more costly and inefficient when we’re not working together toward a common purpose.”

How has Utah transcended political jockeying to raise transportation revenues even when it’s seemingly politically inconvenient? “By contrast, the Utah way is collaboration,” says Gruber. “Government doesn’t have to force us to do it. We have flourished by working together with our children’s future in mind.”

Utah’s transportation agencies have taken advantage of this collaborative spirit, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan is a prime example. The plan identifies balanced investments in transportation needed statewide by 2040 through a fiscally prudent, needs-based prioritization process. In addition, the state has nearly 20 years of experience collaborating on a vision for the future dating back to Envision Utah’s Quality Growth Strategy in 1999.

Currently, WFRC is working with its partners and local communities on the development of Wasatch Choice 2050, a regional vision for transportation, land use, and economic development that provides a blueprint for how projects in the next regional transportation plan are selected and prioritized.

The draft vision emphasizes a “centered” approach to growth. While this term may sound more like something you’d expect to hear in yoga class than in a transportation plan, WFRC sees it as a tool to effectively address key growth issues. The agency works directly with elected officials and staff, community groups, businesses, and others to identify key locations across the region best equipped to grow more densely than others and what transportation projects would be needed to support that growth. 

For those who may balk at the notion of growing up instead of out, Gruber is quick to point out that the vision is all about providing and preserving personal choice. “We want to provide choices for people,” explains Gruber. “We understand that the majority of people will continue to live in single-family homes, driving their cars to get around. We want to make other options also convenient for folks like riding the bus, taking the train, riding a bike, or walking. If some areas of the region grow in a more centered way, it preserves the suburban and rural ways of life for other communities.”

This approach is consistent with private-sector market demand where many Baby Boomers and Millennials are opting increasingly to live in mixed-use, walkable communities. “The draft Wasatch Choice 2050 Vision provides voluntary, locally implemented, market-based solutions,” explains Ted Knowlton, WFRC’s Deputy Director. “Our region’s future cannot be determined by happenstance. We must be intentional in our decision-making to ensure the best outcomes.”

Improving outcomes will be increasingly important as the negative externalities associated with growth are made ever more apparent in our region. Traffic congestion, bad air quality, and a lack of affordable housing are just a few of the issues Wasatch Front communities are facing.

“These issues are regional in nature,” emphasizes Knowlton. “If we want the synergies associated with coordinating local priorities for transportation, land use, and economic development, we must develop a robust, implementable vision.”

WFRC is one of only a handful of agencies across the country that utilizes scenario planning to develop their vision. It’s like having half a dozen crystal balls that allow you to see the future based on certain assumptions for different transportation and land use investments.

The unveiling of the draft Wasatch Choice 2050 Vision will be on Tuesday, January 23rd. The public is welcome to attend the event or provide feedback via an online interactive map that will be available at wfrc.org.

Developing an implementable vision is not a walk in the park — or green space — as urban planners like to call it. There are significant challenges to overcome that if left unresolved could literally make for a rough road ahead.

For example, there has been and will continue to be challenges with growth as evidenced in the 2017 municipal elections in which several longtime serving mayors in high-growth cities lost their elections.

In addition, autonomous vehicles will likely drastically change the transportation landscape in a way that planners admit they don’t fully understand. “We are seeing significant variability in the modeling,” admits Gruber. He acknowledges it’s a challenge his agency will need to tackle.  

Another obstacle is that transportation funding has historically been siloed, with revenues generated from local sales taxes and the state’s motor fuel tax directed to specific transportation modes like transit and roads. The legislatively created Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force has been looking to break down those silos and has recommended in a final report to the Legislature that there be flexibility in transportation funding for the highest-value projects regardless of their mode. It remains to be seen, however, what action will be taken in the upcoming legislative session.

So, the next time those orange construction barrels slow you down, take the high road and remember the decades of work it took to get them there. And, of course, add your voice to the process by attending the unveiling of the draft Wasatch Choice 2050 Vision.

Muriel Xochimitl is President of X-Factor Strategic Communications, a communications consulting firm helping clients meet their long-term goals and objectives through strategic visioning, public relations, public outreach, and stakeholder facilitation. Muriel has worked as the Wasatch Front Regional Council Government Affairs and Communications Director, and as a Communications Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.