Commentary: Transportation agencies enjoy a funding bonanza — but is it a ‘sugar high’?

Utah’s transportation agencies have been hauling in the big bucks lately, with more to come if the federal government passes an infrastructure bill.

However, that doesn’t mean Utah’s transportation funding challenges have been solved, especially because the transportation industry is changing rapidly and Utah is growing quickly. Utah will always be scrambling to meet the state’s mobility needs.

Most of the big chunks of money made available to the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), and to local governments is “one-time” money. In other words, grants of money that may not be repeated. One-time money doesn’t solve long-term transportation funding needs. Some have called the recent funding bonanza a “sugar rush.”

Those were some of the conclusions gleaned from a recent meeting of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Transportation Coalition, and from a conversation with UTA Board Chair Carlton Christensen.

The transportation agency leaders are obviously very happy to have the hundreds of millions of dollars made available from federal pandemic relief funds and from Utah’s budget surplus. They are able to make progress on some very important projects, both for highways and needed public transit improvements.

Utah’s Legislature understands the importance of transportation infrastructure to Utah’s economy, and lawmakers have been very generous in funding critical needs. Lawmakers and transportation planners envision a true multi-modal, high-tech transportation system for the Wasatch Front with choices that meet everyone’s needs. The system will accommodate ride-share services, electric scooters, micro-transit, and connected and autonomous vehicles. Transportation planning and land use planning will be complementary and coordinated, reducing the need for commuting and long trips by vehicle.   

To meet this vision, long-term challenges remain:

  • Highways: The fuel tax, which funds much of Utah’s critical highway maintenance, is slowly declining relative to vehicle miles traveled as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles become more popular. Some automakers are planning to phase out internal combustion engines by 2035. California is requiring all new vehicles sold by 2035 to have zero-emission propulsion systems. Thus, the gas tax is going to fade away as a source for highway maintenance funding. Transportation is going to be electrified.  And 2035 is not very far away, considering all that must be accomplished by then.

The obvious replacement for the fuel tax is a road user charge, but many challenges remain to perfect such a system, ensure fairness, and win the support of citizens. Potholes will become bigger and more numerous unless the gas tax can eventually be replaced. Thus, the future of highway funding remains cloudy, for now.  

  • Public transit: The Legislature made history by appropriating $334 million for public transit. However, a higher level of permanent, on-going funding for transit and active transportation (walking and biking) is necessary to create a multi-modal system and to build the projects prioritized by local governments and anticipated in the state’s Unified Transportation Plan.

Christensen, the UTA board chair, noted that a number of significant transit projects are being planned and preliminary studies are underway, but the agency does not have money to actually build them. Current on-going UTA funding is generally lower than funding in UTA’s peer cities like Phoenix, Denver, Portland and Seattle.

Transportation planners and most legislative leaders are in agreement that public transit must play a key role in maintaining good mobility along the Wasatch Front. We won’t be able to build or widen enough highways when Utah has a population of 5 million.

Most of UTA’s current non-fare revenue comes from sales tax authorized by voters and/or local governments in the UTA service areas. To increase permanent funding, those same voters, local governments, or the Legislature — or some combination thereof — must boost the sales tax, property tax, or use a tax increment mechanism, to provide sufficient funding for upcoming projects.

Happily, Utah’s transportation agencies collaborate and coordinate effectively and generally do not fight or compete with each other. UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras was among those supporting a large investment in public transit, especially double-tracking of FrontRunner, in the last legislative session. It is quite remarkable for the highway department leader to be supporting transit funding. The Legislature has removed many of the “silos” that plague other state transportation systems.

Because of such unity and cooperation, Utah is reasonably well positioned for the future, even though it faces long-term transportation challenges.