How Utah’s transportation agencies have helped Utah’s economy flourish

The French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 and noticed something unique about how Americans worked together.

They were engaged and active in their communities, forging relationships of trust that allowed our nascent democracy to flourish. Modern political scientists have elaborated on this concept, calling it “social capital.”

Social capital is defined as cooperation between groups that reduces transaction costs and incentivizes economic development. Scholars agree that social capital is critical for a robust economy but that it is difficult to achieve. We often tout our ability here in Utah to work collaboratively but what is less clearly understood is how this collaboration supports our robust economy and excellent quality of life.

Let me provide such an example.

The Interstate 15/FrontRunner corridor between northern Utah County and southern Davis County is the most heavily traveled area in the state and is at the epicenter of the region’s economic and population growth. With so many more employees commuting to work, kids getting to school, and businesses moving their products, traffic congestion has increasingly become a challenge.

Unfortunately, almost all the relatively “easy” transportation solutions to address this congestion have already been done. Once theI-15 Technology Corridor project in Lehi is complete, the freeway will have six lanes in each direction. Further widening would severely impact surrounding communities and only marginally increase operational efficiency. Double-decking the freeway is not a realistic alternative.

Consequently, Utah’s four largest transportation agencies, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), and the Mountainland Association of Governments (MAG), came together through an effort called,The Wasatch Front Central Corridor Study (WFCCS) to identify forward-thinking, innovative transportation solutions for the corridor and provide well-studied options for policymakers to consider.

The partners took a consensus-based approach to their work, creating a management committee consisting of one representative from each agency. Team members agreed on every major decision before they moved forward on the next step in the process. They developedagreed-upon goals for the corridor and made the people of Utah their primary focus.

“How we make life better for individuals was always at the forefront of our conversations” said WFRC Deputy Director Ted Knowlton. “As we developed our goals, we asked, ‘How much does it cost for an individual to get around? How easily can they get to work? People value having choices that are cost-effective, convenient, and reliable.”

With the people who use the transportation system in mind, the team studied all modes of transportation comprehensively. They developed metrics that would allow them to better compare transit and roads “apples-to-apples,” said UTA Customer Experience Manager G.J. LaBonty. “We thought about the ‘capital T’ of transportation and did not silo our study into specific modes.”

UDOT Planning Director Jeff Harris agreed. “Our industry tends to jump to a solution,” explained Harris. “Sometimes we think we know what the answer is and let the process unfold after that.” This view has historically led transportation agencies to identify traffic congestion as the problem, with the solution being to widen roads or build more of them. “We can’t build our way out of this,” says Harris.

So, what were the innovative ideas put forward by the project team? Many of them stemmed from a private sector, market-driven paradigm.

“We wanted to see how we could first operate the existing system more efficiently,” said MAG Regional Planning Director Shawn Seager. “We wanted to make sure we were making the best use of the existing taxpayer investment.”

One real-life example of how transit investments make taxpayer dollars stretch further is currently operating between Orem and Provo as the newly opened Utah Valley Express. This bus rapid transit system runs buses every 6 minutes and connects the FrontRunner commuter rail station in Orem with  Utah Valley University, Brigham Young University, and the Provo FrontRunner station. Users can ride the bus at no cost for the first three years to test whether the benefit of having fewer vehicles on this heavily traveled corridor is worth the investment in public transportation.

The project team also studied the concept of real-time ramp metering that would utilize cutting-edge software to gauge the capacity of I-15 and allow a certain number of vehicles on the freeway at specific intervals. While a driver might feel like they are waiting longer to get on the freeway, their overall travel time would be shorter. If implemented, Utah would be the first state in the country to operationalize the technology.

The team also studied charging drivers for their use of the transportation system. Like the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane currently on I-15, drivers would pay a small amount of money to use the freeway during peak periods of congestion. The small cost to drivers would allow the freeway to function more optimally.

“This would provide a huge return on the taxpayer investment,” said Knowlton. “Instead of spending more taxpayer dollars to double deck the freeway, we would ask users of the existing system to pay for some of that use during periods of peak demand. Drivers would benefit from a much more reliable commute and shorter travel times.”

Another compelling option studied by the project team was to double transit ridership in the corridor by increasing transit service and making it more affordable for people to hop on a bus or ride the train. The UDOT representative on the team fully supported these transit options. “We’ve got to stop thinking about specific modes independent of one another,” said Harris. “There needs to be a comprehensive approach and it is important for us that transit is part of our future.”

Harris explained that UDOT studied the transit options being considered using two very different analyses but came to the same conclusion — to improve the capacity on I-15, the state would need to encourage more people to use transit. “We were not advocating for an outcome,” said Harris. “We conducted rigorous, transparent analyses to show the opportunity costs of investing in different ways and ultimately, it will be up to policymakers to decide what to do with the information.”

The team has put forward a set of solutions they consider most effective in meeting the goals established for the corridor. In addition to the options previously outlined, theHybrid Mobility Scenario, includes a “cycle superhighway” for cyclists who commute to/from work, barrier-separated carpool lanes, mobility hubs around transit stops, and many other outside-the-box solutions.

The agencies are working closely with local communities, legislators, community organizations, businesses, and other stakeholders to incorporate the preferred options identified by the WFCCS into the next iteration ofUtah’s Unified Transportation Plan.

And if you needed more proof that the social capital found with Utah’s transportation agencies is a direct benefit for Utah taxpayers, then you should read the Unified Plan.

Muriel Xochimitl is President of X-Factor Strategic Communications and the former Director of Government Affairs and Communications for the Wasatch Front Regional Council. She has also worked as a Communications Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.