Originally published in Utah Business.
I recently moderated a panel for the Sandy Area Chamber of Commerce about growth and Utah’s technology sector. The panel included Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Sandy City Mayor Kurt Bradburn, and Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow. We discussed the opportunities and challenges posed by quality growth, particularly around the Point of the Mountain at the intersection of Salt Lake and Utah counties. I gained several insights from the ensuing dialogue.
Mayor Bradburn governs at near ground zero for Utah’s growth: the tech-intensive corridor that stretches from Sandy to Pleasant Grove. When I asked him if growth pays for itself he said, “no” without hesitation. I wasn’t surprised.
By any measure, growth is expensive. Transportation, water, and utility infrastructure don’t come cheap. Neither does public education, which consumes 45 percent of the state budget. Health and human services for an expanded population also require large investments. In short, growth imposes costs just as it creates benefits.
In the past five years, Utah has added over 100,000 more people through net in-migration. During this same period, Utah added approximately 163,000 more people from natural increase (births minus deaths). This combined growth of 263,000 people is more than the entire population of Weber County, Utah’s fourth largest county. All of this growth happened within just five years.
High levels of growth trigger several challenges. First, traffic congestion builds. Gov. Mike Leavitt tells an instructive story about being stuck in traffic on I-15. He considered the sizable investment to rebuild I-15 in Salt Lake County during his administration and said to himself, “I thought we took care of this.” He knew state government had built the freeways to accommodate 15 years of growth. Then it dawned on him… it had been more than 15 years.
Nowhere is traffic congestion more alarming than in the Lehi City area. The amount of construction is awe-inspiring, even as the transportation system seems in perma-construction mode and frequently registers an “F” for the level of service (breakdown of flow, more demand than capacity). In short, it’s basically a constant traffic jam.
Another challenge triggered by rapid, quality growth is finger pointing. The state points at local government for not permitting more housing. Local government points at the state for not freeing up more money for local roads. Developers point at local government for not permitting enough density, or for adding impact and other fees to the cost of a new home.
Next, people start asking a lot of questions. Why didn’t the Utah Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Planning Organizations foresee these transportation bottlenecks? Was it the right decision to expand Bangerter Highway before finishing Mountain View Corridor? Why is it taking so long to extend light rail service to the Adobe campus and Utah Valley University? Who is looking out for regional air quality impacts?
I have three simple answers to these questions. First, Utah’s transportation planners are doing great work, but they need to invest even more resources in planning. Planning for growth is complicated. You must understand future economic and population growth and then tie this growth together with transportation, land use, and air quality. If you plan well, you can invest well, and save a lot of money.
Second, state and local government simply must invest more in transportation infrastructure. Quality growth requires investment and we aren’t investing enough. We need more roads, more rail, more buses, and more trails for active transportation. We need to pay now to preserve future transportation corridors. And I will say, parenthetically, that we probably need these investments more than we need another tax cut.
Finally, we must achieve new and higher levels of cooperation. Growth isn’t about more of just anything; it’s about more of the right thing. There’s an old saying that collaboration is messy, difficult, time-consuming, and… indispensable. If you take the posture of saboteur rather than a collaborator, you are part of the problem.
The panel discussion reminded me that for growth to be good, it must be accompanied by careful planning, smart investments, and collaborative leadership. When these three things work in harmony, we create fertile soil for Utah companies and residents to prosper. Without them, growth threatens the very conditions that attracted growth in the first place―a great place to build a business and raise a family.
Quality growth should be our North Star. And quality growth requires planning, investment, and collaboration.