Funding for public transit will be big challenge over 30-year horizon

The year 2050 seems like a long way off. But it’s really not. It’s definitely within sight.

By 2050, I will be long gone, but my grandchildren will just be in their 30s and 40s. They’ll have young children of their own. In 2050, most of them will probably still live in Utah, but they will share the state with 5 million other people. And most of them will live along a very crowded Wasatch Front.

And here’s the thing: If we don’t plan for those 5 million people now, while my grandchildren are young, then when they have children of their own the Wasatch Front might be a very miserable place to live, with air pollution, congested highways and urban sprawl in all directions.
Planning for 5 million people was the theme of a very interesting Transportation Interim Committee meeting Wednesday at the Legislature. An underlying theme was that we need to spend more money on public transit and encourage smart land use patterns or the Wasatch Front may be almost uninhabitable for my great-grandkids.

What I heard in the meeting from Andrew Gruber, who leads the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), and a number of other officials from the Utah Department of Transportation, Utah Transit Authority, and other agencies, was that we’d better get the planning right, and the funding right, or Utah’s quality of life will deteriorate significantly.

A key focus was on the Point of the Mountain, the site of a coming massive development anchored by the redevelopment of the 700-acre old prison site. Alan Matheson, who is leading that effort, noted that by 2050 Salt Lake County and Utah County will have nearly the same populations, about 1.5 million residents each.

But these two big counties, with the burgeoning Silicon Slopes high tech sector straddling both, are connected by a narrow neck of land with transportation corridors already heavily congested. If we don’t plan and execute properly, the Point of the Mountain could be the “biggest bottleneck in the west,” said Matheson. Without the right transportation infrastructure, especially public transit, the Point of  the Mountain development simply doesn’t work.

Gruber said we can’t count on the pandemic or telework to significantly reduce travel demand. We’re already up to 90 percent of pre-pandemic passenger travel on highways. We’re seeing a big increase in truck traffic delivering goods to all of us ordering goods on-line.

The WFRC projects $108.5 billion in needed transportation maintenance, operations and infrastructure between now and 2050, with the highest priority investments totaling $91 billion. The good news is that $74.4 billion of that amount should come from existing revenue sources, leaving a $16.5 billion gap.

Where that additional money will come from remains undetermined. It’s especially murky for public transit. Counties have been authorized by the Legislature to increase the sales tax by an additional two-tenths of a cent to fund public transit, raising about $100 million annually in Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties. That amount would be significant, but not enough to pay for all needed transit projects identified in the state’s 2050 Unified Transportation Plan.

By 2050, the state will need more and expanded highways, a faster and more convenient FrontRunner commuter rail system, world-class transit service into the Point of the Mountain development, and additional TRAX or Bus Rapid Transit extensions in a number of high-growth areas.

In addition, a healthy share of housing and business development needs to be high-density mixed-use urban centers located on public transit lines, where people can live, work, play and shop without having to get into a car. That will help reduce highway congestion. We’re already seeing significant development on transit corridors in many cities.

We’re not going to stop growth. It will be unrelenting and merciless. Thankfully, Utah is blessed with excellent and innovative transportation planners and supportive legislators and executive branch leaders.

It will take all of their ingenuity and resourcefulness to come up with a successful funding structure to meet public transit investment needs over the next 30 years.