Analysis: Anderegg says exploding growth means he can’t wait years and year for transportation funding

Utah Sen. Jacob Anderegg is a man on an ambitious and hurried mission.  He has the privilege (or burden) of representing Utah’s fastest growing Senate district – parts of southwestern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County. His district is literally exploding in growth, and his constituents face daily commuting nightmares.

Anderegg is gravely worried that current transportation development plans, along with scheduled funding, simply won’t be enough for his district to avoid transportation gridlock. For him, this issue is an emergency. The house is on fire. Immediate action is needed. There are no alternatives except to quickly ramp up needed highway and public transit projects.

The Legislature has other transportation advocates in the current session. Two of them are Rep. Mike Schultz and Sen. Wayne Harper. These two veteran lawmakers are key leaders in analyzing transportation spending needs and both of them support significant new transportation funding, especially because the state has a lot of one-time money and plenty of bonding capacity.

But Anderegg is feeling the most pressure of all to boost transportation development. He came to the Legislature several years ago as a rock-solid conservative who didn’t pay much attention to public transit. But now he believes that public transit spending, especially TRAX and FrontRunner expansion, are crucial to meet Utah’s transportation needs and will pay off in the long-term.

Here’s the challenge: In 30 years, when today’s children will be starting families, Utah Valley’s population is expected to double, Anderegg said, with much of that growth occurring in his Senate district. Today’s transportation spending is simply not going to keep up with that kind of growth, he said, especially with significant needs in other parts of the state.

Anderegg is suggesting a new form of transportation funding. By establishing Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZs) governments could capture part of the growth in property and/or sales tax revenue within the zone for transportation projects. The plan would not raise taxes, but would capture part of the tax increment. Local governments could create Transportation Reinvestment Zones, or the state could create larger zones, perhaps even most of the Wasatch Front central corridor.

His District 13 simply can’t wait in line for normal allotments of transportation funding, Anderegg said. Growth is happening too fast. His plan is fair, he said, because multiple jurisdictions could create TRZs, and revenue collected would be spent to benefit citizens within those zones.    

Anderegg said his back-of-the-napkin calculations indicate that his Senate district may now have as many as 75,000 more people than districts in more built-out areas with slow growth. His district’s population growth rate is nearly double the state rate. “And we have a lot more land ready to develop in Cedar Valley, west of Utah Lake, and in southwestern Salt Lake County.” That’s where the affordable housing will be, and it will fill up fast, he said.

His calculations aren’t precise, but some projections say Utah will grow to a population of 6 million by 2055, Anderegg said. “Based on available land, some 35-40 percent of that growth could come in my Senate district. That could be 970,000 new residents. If that really comes, I honestly don’t know how we’re going to move people.”

Right now on a light snow day, the senator said, it takes 45 minutes to get from Eagle Mountain to I-15 at Thanksgiving Point. On a heavy snow day, it’s double that time. “Then I get 50-60 angry text messages asking when are you going to fix our roads. In some conditions, you can literally wait 40 minutes to get through an intersection.”

What’s going to happen, Anderegg wonders, “when we have hundreds of thousands more people? I don’t have the luxury of waiting. I need solutions right now. I can’t wait 8-10 years for major projects to begin. If I’m waiting for the funding merry-go-round to go round and have money available, I’m in gridlock. My growth is at a pace that the existing financing infrastructure process is simply inadequate.”

The transportation solution has to be multi-modal, Anderegg said, because road expansion will never keep up with population growth. But public transit has to be so fast and convenient that citizens are happy to use it.

Anderegg isn’t critical of the Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority. “They’re doing the best they can with the resources they have. They have a lot more to worry about than just my area.”

A lot of work is being done on the details of how a TRZ would work, Anderegg said. Many options are possible and all stakeholders need to weigh in. While more study is required, Anderegg thinks that with a systemwide TRZ, covering 110 miles, along with federal funds, bonding and local contributions, sufficient revenue might be raised to make a significant dent in needed multi-modal infrastructure. Freight rail could also be part of the solution, he said.

Zurich, Switzerland, moves 760,000 people a day through its multi-modal station, Anderegg said. Service is frequent and dependable. That’s what needs to happen along the Wasatch Front. If done right, transit adoption rates will be high, he predicts. “It may take 10, 20 or 30 years, but that’s what we need to do.”

Utah leaders need to look at best practices across Europe and Asia, Anderegg said. “If we don’t actively start putting these tools in place, and having a comprehensive game plan, updated every 3-5 years, we’ll never reach the critical mass needed with public transit.”

Anderegg said that a number of years ago, as a conservative Republican, he wouldn’t be advocating for public transit. “But the more I’ve studied it, and seen best practices, this is conservative thing to do. I will swear up and down that this will save us money in the long run. If we get to work now, we can save hundreds of million of dollars, if not billions.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Schultz said he is hopeful a significant bonding program will be approved this session to keep transportation funding at a level so that badly needed projects can go forward. One-time money will likely be part of transportation funding, but Schultz said he worries that without bonding, current levels of transportation spending will decline.

Utah’s debt load is only about half of what it was in 2012, he said. Consistent spending is critical to maintain good mobility and to keep engineers and construction workers busy in Utah so they don’t leave for other states. Roller-coaster transportation spending is hurtful, he said.   

Solid support appears to exist among many state leaders to use significant state funding for public transit. Up to this point, most public transit funding has come from local sales tax money approved by voters and local officials. State leaders are now taking a more holistic approach to transportation funding and want to put money where it will do the most good. Gov. Spencer Cox has proposed spending $350 million for FrontRunner commuter rail improvements.

Schultz, Harper and Anderegg all say Utah cannot build roads fast enough or wide enough to accommodate future growth. Thus, even though transit ridership is down significantly because of the pandemic, they believe ridership will come back, especially if public transit is fast and convenient for a reasonable percentage of citizens. “If we don’t invest in transit,” Schultz said, “I-15 will be gridlocked in not many years.”