There's nothing more pedestrian – but more important -- than the ability to move about, to go where you want to go, and have multiple options for doing so. That's the opinion of Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. He believes mobility is a quality of life issue and sustaining that quality of life involves continued expansion of transportation options in Utah.
"If you go around the country, the ability to move around and go where you want, how you want, is very important to the quality of life," he says. "If we are to retain our quality of life, we need to make different mobility sources available. That means roads, public transit – basically even hiking and biking – those type of things that people enjoy doing."
Adams is one of Utah’s most effective transportation leaders. He’s viewed as one of a handful of “go-to” policymakers on transportation-related issues. Currently serving as Senate majority whip, he has served in both the Utah House and Senate and between his legislative stints he was appointed to the Utah Transportation Commission and served as its chairman. A real estate developer, he also served in local government and has worked on transportation issues for decades.
Adams talks about staying ahead of the curve. He is referring to the state's growing population, the explosion in vehicle miles driven and advancing technology, and how the state needs to keep up with each. One of the ways we grow the economy, he says, is to have more people move in to the state.
"Our economy must grow in order to fund education and the other things that add to our quality of life. But population growth means more vehicle miles, more congestion and more emissions – unless that population has alternative sources of transportation," he explains.
Hence, continued funding for transportation initiatives is part of being proactive and is essential to Utah’s quality of life. Investing in transportation infrastructure also drives economic growth. For example, transportation improvements are essential to get Utah's oil and gas resources from the Uintah Basin to market – which would be a boon to the Utah economy and help fund education.
"Without question, it’s been proven that investments in infrastructure mobility drive the economy. You can see that in Utah County, now that we have completed the I-15 Core project," he continues.
Somebody Else Does the Driving
One area of focus is increased public transit options, which Adams says may be more preferable than more highway construction, as population densities increase and the growing workforce seeks access to employment centers without the hassle of driving and parking issues.
"In many areas of the country, public transit is actually thought of as a higher quality ride, where somebody else does the driving and you work while they drive," he continues. "If public transit is done right it does improve the quality of life. One of the down sides; however, is that in some instances, you have to wait for the ride and it can take longer to get where you are going."
As Utah plans for future mobility, Adams says staying abreast of technology is essential. What if you could program in your destination and as you enter the freeway a computer system takes control of your car, merges you into traffic and then moves you from lane to lane in an efficient pattern, ultimately driving to your destination for you, and then releases control of your vehicle once you exit the freeway? Some drivers may not be keen on such a futuristic approach to relieving traffic congestion, but Adams says that scenario is a realistic possibility.
"I believe technology will help us improve mobility," he explains. "And as that happens, we may be able to double or triple the capacity of our existing roads. I can tell you that technology can change the vision of mobility for the future and I am very excited to be part of it. But until then, we go with what we have and continue to maintain our transportation system to make it functional and efficient."
Driving Your Way Out of Congestion
Adams says he has been told, "You can't drive your way out of congestion," but more highway construction is essential nonetheless. He can think of multiple projects that must be completed to stay ahead of the curve. One is the extension of the Mountain View Corridor, which he says should be continued to 21st South and beyond that to I-80. Further, I-15 must be widened between southern Salt Lake County and Lehi to alleviate growing congestion there.
In Davis County, traffic congestion is building between Farmington and Clearfield. Adams says I-15 should be expanded to perhaps five or six lanes there, to accommodate increased traffic. Legacy Highway also needs to be extended from Farmington to Weber County. And Highway 89 should be widened in many areas to accommodate increased interstate truck traffic. Highway 6 through Price also needs improvements, and Highway 40 through Duchesne and Vernal is in desperate need of expansion to meet the needs of residents and energy companies there. Adams says hauling Utah's oil and gas resources from the Uintah Basin to market might require the construction of a rail line from the Wasatch Front to Vernal, or perhaps a road or rail line from Vernal south to I-70.
"When you start to add up all of those needs, there is a horrendous amount of work to be done, just to maintain the quality of life I am talking about and to drive our economy," he says.
Funding Transportation and Education
One of the big questions on many minds is whether transportation competes with education for funds. Adams says transportation issues are a high priority for the legislature, but so is education and healthcare.
"Without a doubt education is important," he adds. "As former President Bush said when he was in Utah, education is as important to the state as the defense budget is to the nation."
Public education receives 100 percent of its funds from income taxes. Higher education, on the other hand, receives funds from income taxes and sales taxes, the latter also being a funding source for transportation.
"You could argue a little bit that higher education competes with transportation for funds," Adams explains. "But I think they are really tied together. If we couldn’t maintain or expand the highway in Sardine Canyon as we have, Utah State University would be challenged to get students. And if you couldn’t take care of I-15 in Utah County, Utah Valley University would be equally challenged. For that matter, if there were mobility issues you would have a hard time getting people to attend the University of Utah and Weber State University. The key with any funding mechanism is balance."
Taxes and Transportation
He notes that the legislature continues to give all revenue increases to public education. But whether sales taxes should be used as the primary funding source for transportation remains in question. Other questions are whether the gas tax should be increased, or if the state should look at more innovative sources for transportation funds.
"A few of us believe the gas tax was a good funding source in the past, but it is really hard to put an inflationary adjustment on a gas tax because gas prices are so volatile," he notes.
Having just returned from a trip to New England, Adams says he contributed "significantly" to the coffers of several states via their toll roads. "People don't like toll roads, but it is pretty easy to argue that the only people who pay the tolls are the drivers that use the roads – and a user fee is not a bad way to pay for your infrastructure," he explains.
This summer and into next year, Adams and a legislative committee will be looking for alternate funding sources besides the gas tax, to "see if there is something better." And while much has yet to be done, he believes the state has a functional transportation system that supports mobility via roads, public transit and bike trails. The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) is well thought of on a national level and has been highly successful with its projects. (Although UTA has need for additional funding as well, he says.)
Adams believes air quality will improve in lock step with transportation improvements and efficiencies. To that end, he is pushing for a greater move into alternate fuels, such as compressed natural gas, which will also improve air quality and give drivers more options. Looking back, he says what has been done in Utah transportation over the last 10 to 15 years is "absolutely phenomenal." He cites the reconstruction of I-15 through downtown Salt Lake City as one example.
"It would have been horrendously difficult. We have done a lot and I believe we can stay ahead of the congestion. We just have to have a commitment to do it. Utah’s future is extremely bright and the next generation has as much to look forward to as we did," he concludes.