Since 1869, when the last spike was driven and completed the first transcontinental railroad, Utah has been considered the crossroads of the West. To this day, our state continues to be the intersection of commerce and transportation. Though we have made immense progress with transportation over the last 151 years, Utah is at a current crossroad regarding the future of the state’s transportation.
Over the last three years, lawmakers and stakeholders have made key decisions regarding the future of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and Utah Transit Authority (UTA, preparing for a future with viable transportation systems and infrastructure. Through careful planning, prioritization and funding, governance structures have been improved in statute, rule and administration.
However, there is more work to be done. Additional issues and opportunities need to be addressed.
This year, transportation opportunities have been highlighted as societal changes accelerated how we travel, commute and purchase goods and services. Challenges to alternate fuel vehicles and improved fuel efficiency have led to fewer motor tax revenues at the pump. Though these vehicles use the same road systems, alternative fuel vehicles do not provide the funds needed to maintain our current system.
Furthermore, new homes are being built every day, calling attention to our continued population growth and the additional stresses it places on our infrastructure. Though we are excited about the growth our state is seeing, funding for expanding and maintaining roads, transit and public transportation systems is not meeting current demands.
Transportation and transit revenues are projected to remain stagnant, or even decrease, but the cost to maintain or build new transportation systems will continue to rise. Key questions confront us. How will we pay to maintain our roads and freeways? How will we increase transit and bus options along the Wasatch Front and in other growing areas like Washington, Cache and Grand Counties? How will we expand critical road systems and reduce commute times on freeways and intersections?
The groundwork for substantial, meaningful change has been laid with stakeholders’ involvement, such as chambers of commerce, private industry, the Legislature, UDOT, UTA, cities, counties, and the executive branch. Now that the foundation for change has been set, it is our duty to build upon what we have to meet our state’s current transportation demands.
As the Legislature considers refining and improving transit and transportation funding options in 2021, I encourage each of you to participate and make suggestions on what could be improved. A few options lawmakers are considering include bonding, road use charges, fees and using other resources. With interest rates at historic lows, it is likely time for a major transportation bond that will accelerate prioritization of road projects that could save the taxpayers money over time and reduce driving and commuting delays.
As the crossroads of the West, Utah needs to make important decisions now that will affect transportation for years to come, just like the transcontinental railroad did for our state 151 years ago. Now is the time to take on the challenges of today while building for the promise of tomorrow.
Senator Wayne Harper is chair of the Utah Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy & Technology Committee