Guest opinion: Utah’s remarkable transportation & urban planning progress

As a transportation professional with 34 years of experience working in Utah, in both the public and private sectors, I have seen the evolution of transportation first hand and I am excited and optimistic about Utah’s transportation progress.

Thanks to strong and visionary leadership by elected and appointed officials and the business community, Utah is well-positioned for the future.

I am the Utah, Idaho and Montana area manager for WSP (formerly Parsons Brinckerhoff), an international transportation engineering and planning firm with offices across the country and the world. My associates in other parts of the country are noticing (and are a bit jealous of) Utah’s progressive and collaborative approach to infrastructure development and urban planning.

Utah is poised for dramatic population growth and we need an excellent transportation system that avoids gridlock and keeps people and goods moving.  We can no longer improve transportation simply by adding capacity. We need to use all the tools in the tool box, including advanced technology, to maintain an enviable quality of life.

The prospect of Utah’s population doubling within the lifetimes of most people 40 years old and younger has galvanized key Utah leaders and planners to focus on innovative solutions. Utah will grow by some 60,000 people a year for the foreseeable future. That’s like dropping a city the size of Taylorsville, each year, into the Wasatch Front – increasing the number of homes, vehicles, and the need for water, power and other utilities. That’s a lot of absorb, and Utah’s leaders know that if we continue business as usual, we will reap highway gridlock, more air pollution, and a major deterioration of life quality.

Important action was taken in the recent legislative session, and other initiatives are being launched by a variety of agencies and organizations. Here is a summary of what I believe are remarkable points of progress:

–Utah’s leaders have fully embraced the concept of transportation development and land use planning moving forward in tandem. That’s a huge paradigm shift from business as usual. Utah’s highways will simply not be able to accommodate the number of new vehicles if remaining available land isn’t wisely developed. Sprawling growth will guarantee more congestion.

–After years of work by local planning organizations such as the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Mountainland Association of Governments, Envision Utah and others, the notion has been embraced by most county councils, city councils, and local planning commissions that it makes sense to develop the Wasatch Front in mixed-use urban centers with higher density, where people can walk or ride a bike to work, shopping, play, church, and schools. Developing urban centers preserves open space and saves on transportation, utility and other infrastructure costs. The principles of smart planning and quality growth are being implemented. The centers can be connected via public transit to facilitate travel among centers.

–On a related front, here’s a big and meaningful change: multi-modal transportation planning. No longer are highways, roads, public transit, bike and walking trails being developed in silos. Mobility needs in transportation corridors are being viewed holistically – what mix of roads, public transit and bike trails will best maintain good mobility. Our firm has worked on several projects where we analyze all modes of transportation to integrate the best combination of transportation options.

–Here’s another game changer: Thanks to legislative action, no longer will funding for highways and public transit be viewed separately. The “highest value” projects will be funded, including with state money, whatever the mode. Appropriately, transit projects funded with state money will be overseen by UDOT.

–Nearly everyone now agrees, including state legislators, city and county leaders and UDOT leaders, that public transit must play a significant and growing role in meeting mobility needs. Leaders understand that we can’t build enough freeways to meet future congestion. Public transit, wise land use planning and technological innovations must take some of the pressure off the roads. Not long ago, such broad support for the public transit role was not nearly as strong.

–Integrating funding for Utah Transit Authority into state transportation funding means that UTA will be restructured with more state involvement in the agency. A three-member commission, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, will run the agency.

–Utah Senate Pres. Wayne Niederhauser has been on a mission to make Utah’s transportation funding more user-based. He believes those who use the highways should pay more in fuel taxes and other fees. The Legislature followed his lead by expanding tolling options and calling for a non-binding vote on a fuel tax increase. That action would also free up more money for public education.

–I’ve been impressed with the visionary, forward-looking planning for two enormous development regions — the Point of the Mountain area and the Northwest Quadrant in Salt Lake City. Both of these initiatives will require massive infrastructure investment, but they have the potential to boost Utah’s economy dramatically, with high-tech jobs and new industries.

All of this innovation, progressive thinking and long-term planning wouldn’t happen without Utah’s famous collaboration and cooperation. Many people and organizations have contributed to this success. At the risk of leaving someone out, I want to thank key state legislators, including Sen. Wayne Harper and Rep. Mike Schultz, along with UDOT’s Carlos Braceras, Jerry Benson at UTA, Andrew Gruber from Wasatch Front Regional Council, and Abby Osborne and Michael Parker at the Salt Lake Chamber.

It truly is a team effort and I expect it will continue to ensure good mobility and a strong economy in Utah, even with our rapid growth.

It has been exciting to be part of this progress. WSP has a long and rich history in Utah. We opened the Utah office over 30 years ago as Parsons Brinckerhoff. While our firm touches all aspects of engineering, including Water and Environment, Buildings and Property, and Energy, to name a few, our local office expertise is in Transportation and Infrastructure as well as the Transit and Rail sectors.