News analysis: Here’s how Utah can maintain mobility in face of rapid growth

Transportation 01

Fifty-thousand people is enough for a pretty good-sized city in Utah. In fact, it’s about the population of Murray. And that’s about how much Utah’s population has recently been growing each year, most of it along the Wasatch Front.

When you annually add a city nearly the size of Murray, with all the necessary roads, bridges, utilities, housing, etc., to the Wasatch Front, you get an idea of the challenge faced by Utah’s transportation planners. 

The addition of 500,000 people in 10 years, traveling on Utah’s main transportation arteries could mean gridlock is ahead. It could mean those freeways are going to be clogged up, thoroughly congested, perhaps even at catastrophic failure status, in 10 to 15 years.  

Is anyone going to enjoy a two-hour commute from Sandy to downtown Salt Lake City?

Freeway gridlock also means unacceptable congestion on arterials and secondary roads. That’s the scenario facing leaders at the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), Utah Transit Authority (UTA), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and local cities and counties.

So, do they have plans to keep Utah moving despite a booming population? Yes, they do.

Thankfully, Utah is led by visionary policymakers and leaders who continually look to the future. They project population and traffic growth and determine how best to maintain mobility and keep commerce and people flowing. 

But it won’t be easy, and it will be expensive. And even with a massive effort, congestion is going to get worse.

As we have reviewed a number of studies and long-range transportation plans from several agencies, it’s clear that planners are looking at five essential steps to keep the main transportation arteries flowing as more people pack the Wasatch Front. These elements are synergistic. They must all work together to keep Utah moving:


  1. Aggressively implement managed lanes and congestion pricing on I-15 and possibly other freeways. This will keep traffic flowing by incentivizing commuters to travel at less congested times of the day, and by encouraging them to use the freeways less often, and public transit more frequently.   
  2. Bolster public transit by double-tracking and electrifying FrontRunner. This will significantly increase reliability, convenience and ridership. More trains can be added, including fast express trains; 15-minute intervals could be implemented, and all trains will be faster. No more diesel locomotives that pollute the air. FrontRunner expansion could absorb thousands of commuters who decide to choose the train over their car. The cost will be significant, but it is a bold, generational solution.
  3. Make public transit low-cost – or even freeExpand Bus Rapid Transit, TRAX and other public transit options. This would also be very expensive, but so is building and maintaining more highways and freeways. Making public transit free would dramatically increase ridership, taking pressure off the highways. Part of this step is solving the first-mile, last-mile challenge, making public transit more convenient. This is done by providing more transportation choices, certainly, but also by shrinking the distances necessary to travel from home to work or school via better integration of land use, economic and transportation decisions. Which points to…
  4. Encourage local land use policies that create walkable mixed-use urban centers with higher density housing, connected to public transit. This would enable more people to live, work, shop and play close to home, reducing highway congestion and improving community cohesion and health.  
  5. Encourage Utahns to TravelWise. Reduce highway usage and single-occupant vehicle trips by promoting carpooling, telecommuting and flextime. Encourage more biking and walking. Each car trip eliminated makes the rest of the transportation system flow better, with the added benefit of improving air quality in our communities and the individual health of the citizens who live in them.

All of this will cost billions of dollars in new investment. And it will still require a great deal more highway construction all across the state.

Happily, UDOT is taking greater responsibility for public transit and is focused on how to make highways and transit work together. UDOT and UTA collaborate better than ever before. WFRC and MAG – our two Wasatch Front MPOs – have created the Wasatch Choice Vision that is built on many of the above strategies based on input from all the transportation agencies. Our transportation officials are looking ahead and they are implementing solutions to keep us moving while maintaining quality of life.

For these plans to work, policymakers, UDOT and UTA will have to edal with a large funding challenge. Highways in Utah are funded reasonably well, and those funding levels need to continue to keep up with population growth. 

But public transit has very little money for needed expansion projects, including those in the long-range plans. The Legislature was wise to create a transit fund using state taxes tied to the fuel tax. But it will grow relatively slowly over a number of years. A big boost in transit funding will be needed to reduce congestion on the freeways. Utah Transit Authority is today funded at significantly lower levels than most of its peer agencies in other western metro areas.  

One big benefit: these changes would have a positive impact on Wasatch Front air quality.

Making this happen will require a big vision and transformational leadership. Many projects in Utah’s 2050 Unified Transportation Plan needs to be accelerated and accomplished by 2030.

Wisely, the Utah Legislature has put in place some of the statutory tools to accomplish these goals, including revamping UTA governance, making public transit eligible for state transportation funds, and giving UDOT a bigger role in public transit. Lawmakers have been farsighted and courageous. And many local governments are taking steps to better coordinate their land use and development patterns with the transportation system.

The price to keep Utah moving will be high. But the cost of congestion and gridlock will be even higher. There is a better way. We know what it is and have a decent idea of what it will cost.

Let’s take bold leadership now to keep Utah moving.

Dana Meier is area manager for WSP (formerly Parsons Brinckerhoff), an international engineering firm, and is a member of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Transportation Coalition. LaVarr Webb is also a member of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Transportation Coalition and has done consulting work with WSP. He is publisher.