Commentary: 2050 is around the corner and now is the time to prepare

2050 seems so far off in the future that we don’t even need to think about it, right? Won’t an asteroid strike earth, or won’t the Second Coming of Jesus happen, or won’t a pandemic wipe out the population (oops that’s hitting a bit close to home) before 2050 arrives?

Actually, for planning purposes, 2050 is just around the corner. And Utah’s population forecasters say that by 2050, there will be 5.25 million people in Utah — two million more than today. What Utah will be like with 2 million more people, most of them crammed along the Wasatch Front, is a big question that we need to be asking today.

Utah is already one of the most urbanized states in the country and, for the next 29 years, we’ll be adding the population equivalent of a medium-sized city to the Wasatch Front — every year. Wow.

It’s interesting, when you get to be my age, how 1990, 31 years ago, seems like yesterday. But 2050, 29 years from now, seems like eons away.

But, we need to face it, folks. 2050 is going to happen. It’s not far away. Those 29 years will whiz by. I actually won’t be around to see 2050, but most people alive today will still be alive then. So, people, we’re talking about YOUR future.

By 2050, my grandchildren will only be in their 30s and 40s and will have young children of their own. Will they enjoy a high quality of life, with clean air, open space and good mobility? Will they be able to easily get to jobs, schools, shopping, visit families and go to recreation areas?

The reality is, if we don’t plan for those extra 2 million people, if we don’t begin to put in place the transportation infrastructure, preserve open space, and encourage housing and living options that minimize the need to commute long distances, then life in 2050 is going to be pretty miserable. The air will be dirtier, the highways in gridlock, commuting times will be untenable, and life quality will deteriorate.

With highways already crowded today, and with many parts of the Wasatch Front nearly built out, it’s going to be very difficult to accommodate 2 million more people. But they are coming.

A good share of Utah’s population and economic growth will occur in southern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County – already a transportation bottleneck. Without excellent planning and significant investment, the region will be at total gridlock by 2050 – or before.

Certainly, my grandchildren’s lives in 2050 will be ultra-high tech. I can’t begin to imagine the technological advances over the next 29 years. They likely will do most shopping from home (which means a lot more delivery trucks on the roads). They might get around in autonomous vehicles (which might increase, not decrease, traffic congestion). Hopefully, they’ll be using a lot more public transit.

Despite all of these challenges, I’m pretty optimistic that my grandchildren will enjoy a high quality of life in 2050. Utah has a terrific planning process for transportation. Utah’s lawmakers, as evidenced by historic levels of transportation funding in the legislative session now ending, understand the need for major infrastructure investment.

For first time in history, a lot of state money is targeted to public transit. Lawmakers understand we won’t be able to build enough freeways and secondary highways to accommodate 2 million more people traveling the same way we do today. For example, our leaders intend to make FrontRunner commuter rail an attractive transportation alternative, as convenient (and cheaper) than driving on the freeway. Infrastructure investments made today will still be in use in 2050.

So it’s great that Utah’s state and local governments and infrastructure agencies are planning for 2050, including encouraging land use policies that will provide a variety of housing options such as walkable urban centers where families can live, work, shop and play. They recognize the importance of linking transportation with land use planning, housing, and economic development.

Government leaders are taking a holistic, multi-modal approach to transportation, looking at where transportation corridors SHOULD be located, instead of simply reacting to sprawl.

It’s going to be very difficult to maintain Utah’s quality of life with 5.25 million people living in the state. It will require immense collaboration at all levels of government and a willingness to make major investments.