To Achieve Destiny, Utah County Must Embrace Public Transit

lavarr policy insightsI’m pretty much a downtown/city sort of guy, since I’ve worked in downtown Salt Lake City for more than 40 years.

I also live in a condo in the heart of downtown and I enjoy the city life (as long as I can escape periodically). I don’t fit the downtown stereotype because I’m a white, old, Mormon, married, Republican male. It’s kind of fun being a distinct downtown minority.

However, despite loving downtown SLC, I also really like Utah County, as contradictory as it might sound.  Yes, Utah County. I grew up there, hunted pheasants in the fields along Utah Lake, chased girls at Orem and Provo high schools, built dune buggies in a vacant lot next to my friend’s house, breathed the air from Geneva Steel, and went to BYU (Go Cougs!).

But the idyllic, quiet, semi-rural Utah County where I grew up has vastly changed. Now Utah County, home to the state’s largest public (UVU) and private (BYU) universities, is booming with rapid growth, traffic jams and all the challenges of a major metro area.

That’s why I can’t understand the negative attitudes in Utah County toward public transit. Congestion is only going to get worse and quality of life will deteriorate if county residents don’t embrace buses and rail to move people around the county.

The University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute recently did a little research report called, “The Rise of Utah County.” The report noted that Utah County’s employment growth from March 2015 to March 2016 was a remarkable 5.9 percent, compared to 3.3 percent for all of Utah and 2 percent for the nation. Some 40 percent of job growth statewide is occurring in the short distance between Pleasant Grove and Midvale.

And, looking to future growth, the report noted that while Salt Lake County has about 36,000 buildable acres left to develop, Utah County has 208,000. That’s where much of Utah’s future growth will occur.

Anyone who lives or works in northern Utah County, or just drives past the area (sometimes in a traffic jam), can see an explosion of residential, business and industrial growth as the area merges into south Salt Lake County to create the state’s most robust economic region.

And, elected leaders and economic development officials have grandiose plans to turn the region into a world-class high-tech corridor, attracting major-league businesses from across the country and the world.

It’s a great vision, but it won’t fully reach fruition on the Utah County side of the border until Utah County leaders and residents more fully embrace public transit. In fact, many top-tier, high-tech companies simply won’t build in Utah County unless they have rail or bus rapid-transit service.

That’s right. If we don’t provide excellent public transit service, some companies simply won’t come to the area. 

This high-tech corridor with such great promise is, unfortunately, also a transportation bottleneck, a traffic planner’s nightmare. Bordered on one side by a mountain point with gravel pits, on the other by a military base, with river narrows in between, we simply can’t build enough freeway lanes to accommodate all the expected traffic growth.

Public transit must become a much bigger part of the transportation solution, not just across the Point of the Mountain, but throughout Utah County.

Utah County has some terrific leaders, including county commissioners, mayors, business leaders, and university presidents who get it. They have been advocates for expanded public transit. Still, Utah County has lagged behind Utah’s other Wasatch Front counties in authorizing transit taxes so expansion can occur.

The FrontRunner trains between Salt Lake and Utah counties are jam-packed morning and evening. Residents of Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs have some of the worst commutes in the state.

Come on, Utah County. If you really want to achieve your glorious destiny as a world-class economic hub, you must fully embrace public transit.