Guest opinion: Utah’s secret sauce — how transportation officials have worked to perfect the recipe

Muriel Xochimitl 01

Utah’s economy is booming. Recently released data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that our job growth is the highest in the country and the unemployment rate has reached a historic low. Of course, our state’s economic success is not just attributable to one person but the result of many individual’s collective efforts to achieve common goals.

These efforts are proactive, intentional and iterative. They entail countless hours of debate and deliberation, even when some desired outcomes never come to fruition and compromise leaves a few folks unhappy. Utahns’ ability to collaborate is our “secret sauce” and our transportation agencies have been working to perfect the recipe.

A well-functioning transportation system is the backbone of a robust economy. So, when transportation officials recently released the latest version of Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan, it was no surprise that the quantifiable benefits anticipated with implementation include a nearly $248.2 billion increase in GDP and the creation of nearly 212,000 new jobs by 2050. These numbers represent a doubling in the returns for every dollar invested in transportation.

The first-of-its-kind nationally, the Unified Plan provides a prime example of Utah’s collaboration in action. It identifies balanced investments in road, transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure needed across the state to sustain existing infrastructure investments and stay ahead of future growth. Utah’s transportation agencies, like the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), the Mountainland Association of Governments (MAG) and other metropolitan planning organizations, work together to create and release a new version of the Unified Plan every four years. Each agency uses shared growth projections, time horizons and financial assumptions to assemble complementary plans that integrate seamlessly into the Unified Plan.

Transportation officials know that transportation is a means to an end, not an end in itself. They have adeptly coordinated land use considerations with context-sensitive transportation projects to make getting from “point A to point B” easier. This is true particularly for access to employment opportunities. Transportation officials have collaborated with economic development organizations and local officials to facilitate job centers near housing developments, and vice versa.

“Our transportation challenges cannot be solved by transportation solutions alone. We have to continue to invest in all modes, providing choices for people to drive, take transit, ride their bike or walk,” said WFRC Executive Director Andrew Gruber. “We don’t have enough room to address all our transportation needs by just building more transportation capacity…we also have to think about how our communities are developing. Land use has a huge impact on transportation demand.”

In recent years, the Utah State Legislature has done just that. Passed in 2018, Senate Bill 136, Transportation Governance Amendments directed Utah’s Transportation Commission to update the way transportation projects are selected and prioritized. The law required the consideration of metrics for land use and economic development and created a Transit Transportation Investment Fund (TTIF) to help fund transit needs. The TTIF is the State’s first-ever ongoing funding source for transit and signals that Legislators recognize transit investment is important.

“Transit is going to play a big role in the mobility of Utah,” said UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot. “For example, we have a major opportunity to invest in FrontRunner. If we can continue to make our rail and bus service more frequent and reliable, we will be able to improve mobility for thousands of Utahns, improve air quality and ultimately enhance our quality of life.”

In addition to increases in transit funding, the Legislature has also made highway funding available for biking and walking projects and required cities to integrate transportation considerations into their moderate-income housing plans. These statutory changes help to break down the barriers that have historically siloed transportation funding and support the Unified Plan’s approach to comprehensively address the needs of the transportation system more holistically. 

The Unified Plan clearly articulates Utah’s transportation needs and the associated benefits of investing in those needs over the next 30 years. According to transportation officials, if the investments identified in the Unified Plan were made between now and 2050, Utah drivers would spend nearly five fewer days stuck in traffic each year, transit ridership would increase by 123 percent and there would be 54 percent less vehicle emissions in the air we breathe. These benefits would occur even as the state’s population nearly doubles during the same time period.

Proactively planning for the future is becoming increasingly important as transportation agencies grapple with emerging transportation technologies such as autonomous vehicles on the ground and in the airconnected technologies and innovative approaches to transportation funding.

“I think all of these new technologies will be important for us moving forward. We also have to check back and ask, ‘How are these affecting our quality of life?’” said UDOT Deputy Director Teri Newell. “If they aren’t making our quality of life better then are they the right technology? We have to be aware of that as we adopt them and make sure that we’ve thought about those unintended consequences.”

And while these emerging technologies may affect how we get around in the future, Utah’s transportation officials are working together to ensure any changes will continue to support a robust economy and excellent quality of life.

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