July | August 2017

By Sean Slone, CSG Program Manager for Trasportation Policy
Utah state Rep. Kay Christofferson knows firsthand the impact transportation investment—and the lack thereof—can have on his state’s economy.
“I was working in the (transportation) construction industry in 2008 when the economy went into a big slump and I saw what that did,” he said. “I think 30 percent of the jobs were lost in construction.”
Christofferson, a civil engineer and House Transportation Committee member, also has seen the positive impact transportation has had on his community of Lehi, Utah. Once a relatively small town with an agricultural economy, it’s now at the epicenter of economic growth in the state thanks to four exits along the major north-south artery I-15, the expansion of the FrontRunner commuter rail system to the area and other factors.
Software companies like Adobe and Xactware now have operations or corporate headquarters in Lehi. Outdoor activities retailer Cabela’s has a large store, as well.
“A lot of them have been attracted by the fact that there are a lot of transportation options,” said Christofferson. “I was born in Lehi. I’ve seen it go from 4,000 people to 55,000 plus. … Transportation is a huge factor (in) that rapid growth and the businesses and other industries that have filled in that area. It’s a prime spot between Provo and Salt Lake, two big hubs of Utah, where a lot of not only business activity but the educational institutions are.”
Driving Investment
Rep. Justin Miller, a freshman lawmaker from Salt Lake City and an economist by trade, recalled a major event that provided an impetus to transportation investment.
“The 2002 Olympic Games here in Salt Lake City probably put transportation needs more on the map than they were prior to that,” he said. “In order to accomplish the Olympics, we had to do a major rebuild of the corridor of I-15, which was a gigantic project.”
While that investment and the Utah Transit Authority’s expansion of the FrontRunner system have paid off in myriad ways, Miller said it has been Utah’s approach to transportation over the years that has prepared it to face its present and future.
“Because of Utah’s fiscal management in the past, it really opened up our ability to be forward-thinking as far as infrastructure needs, as opposed to having to make up for actions in the past,” Miller said.
Today, Utah is among a handful of states leading the nation in job growth. Last year, employment growth was at 3 percent, exceeding the national average of 1.8 percent.
But Utah does have concerns.
“In the next 40 years, we’re going to double our population,” said Jeff Harris, director of
transportation planning at the Utah Department of Transportation, commonly called UDOT.
Much of that growth will happen along the Wasatch Front, the narrow strip of land in the central part of the state that is home to Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden. Sandwiched between the Wasatch Mountain Range to the east and the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake to the west, it provides tight quarters for 80 percent of the state’s total population.
Harris’ department and its partners have a document they hope will guide them through the changes ahead. Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan 2011-2040 lists the highway and transit projects state and local leaders hope will allow them to meet the population growth challenge and continue their economic success.
Under the plan, the state will invest an additional $11.3 billion in new transportation funding for a total of $54.7 billion. In the process, the Economic Development Research
Group estimates the state will generate more than 180,000 jobs by 2040, add $183.6 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and produce $22.2 billion in tax revenues from economic growth. Overall, Utah expects to see a $1.94 return on investment in non-construction GDP gain per $1 invested.
Funding Improvements
But nationwide, experts say states and the federal government are largely missing out on the economic benefits extensive infrastructure investment could bring and allowing infrastructure to decline in many places is costing Americans in jobs, GDP and quality of life.
The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2011 estimated the deteriorating infrastructure will cost the economy more than 876,000 jobs and suppress growth in GDP by $897 billion by the end of the decade. But with an additional investment of $94 billion per year nationwide, many of the costs could be avoided and benefits achieved.
The problem has been funding those improvements.
As the 2015 legislative sessions got underway in January, many states, including Utah, were expected to consider changes to their state gas taxes or other revenue enhancements. Utah and other states remain concerned, however, about the uncertainty surrounding the federal transportation program this year and whether the dwindling Highway Trust Fund can be replenished.
Harris said his department is doing its part to keep costs down on Utah transportation projects. Rather than keep transportation construction crews on staff, UDOT relies on contractors and consultants from the private sector to tackle the work.
“We’re more of a management organization than we are anything else,” he said. “We’re very lean and mean.”
State and federal funding and fiscal management all will be important parts of the equation in helping states bring their infrastructure into the 21st century.
Harris said plenty of Utah transportation assets will need a 21st century facelift as the state grows. That essential north-south route, I-15, for example?
“It’s as wide as it’s going to get, really, so how do I keep that facility functioning at a reasonable level of mobility and levels of congestion?” said Harris.
The state DOT likely will have to look at congestion pricing—charging motorists different tolls to drive on the road based on time of day and congestion level, Harris said.
Elsewhere in the state, additional transportation challenges and economic opportunities loom. East of the Wasatch Front is the Uintah Basin, which is home to a huge energy field that is not served by rail so tanker trucks must traverse the area’s main highway artery, U.S. 40. That road will need to be improved, Harris said.
Farther south is U.S. 191, a primarily two-lane road that is one of the few highways that crosses the Colorado River. As a favored route for both freight trucks and tourists bound for popular destinations like Arches National Park and Canyonlands, it, too, will need upgrades. All three roads are critical to the state’s economy.
Harris and others say Utah will continue to rely on careful planning, cooperation and fiscal responsibility in transportation across the state in order to try to maintain its economic success.
“Urban planning is about congestion and mobility,” said Harris. “Rural planning is about connecting communities, it’s about interstate commerce, it’s about tourism. All of those are critically important to the state of Utah.”