Relentless growth threatens road funding

Friday , May 02, 2014 - 4:19 PM

Dana Rimington

LAYTON – Most residents are familiar with the fact that the population is expected to continue growing and the transportation challenges seen today will only be compounded significantly as the numbers increase. Where will the money come from, participants wondered Thursday at the Top Of Utah Transportation Expo.

Building more roads is not the answer, according to Kris Peterson, director of the Utah Department of Transportation’s Region One as he opened the expo at Weber State University – Davis Campus. So what are the options, he asked the nearly 100 public members, elected officials, and government employees from across Top of Utah in attendance. “We need to work together and take a cohesive effort on all our parts.”

Robert Grow, president and CEO of Envision Utah, talked about the issues facing the area, admitting growth is not a new issue, with Utah’s population having tripled in the last 40 years, and not predicted to stop. Grow said there is only so much developable land left in Utah, with 33,980 acres of land left in Weber County, 13,660 acres left in Davis, 35,890 in Salt Lake City, and 207,800 in Utah County, which all includes agricultural land that will be preserved, which makes communities have to make wiser decisions when planning, said Grow.

Grow says Utah has a long history of planning its cities with future generations in mind, such as the recent trend for cities to build single family homes on smaller lot sizes, resulting on more inclusive growth. “We’re growing more compactly, so we can hook to water and sewer lines, with fewer people building outward with septic tanks,” said Grow. “Because of smaller lot sizes, communities are using less water, and there are infrastructure savings by not urbanizing another couple square miles.”

Transportation has also seen major changes, with improved transportation systems and the vehicle miles driven each day declining with more use of transit systems.

Grow urged community members not to sit back and watch where the growth will take communities. “Determine whether people can get to where they need to go when you design your communities,” said Grow. “If we design them right from the beginning, it will save money in the long run.”

However, it all comes with a cost, according to Natalie Gochnour, associate dean in the Davis Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist to the Salt Lake Chamber, who spoke about the challenges of paying for transportation needs. Gochnour commended Utah for investing heavily in its  infrastructure to promote a good economy, making it easy for consumers to get around, but looking to the future, she said we have to find other ways of paying for rising costs of transportation needs.

Currently, Utah residents pay a motor fuel tax, but it gets eaten by inflation, said Gochnour, and with fuel efficiencies in cars improving, the funds coming from the fuel tax to pay for roads are decreasing. “We have an issue here because we are growing and have great needs, but the funds aren’t keeping up, so we will need to take from other funds,” said Gochnour.

Gochnour brought up the reality that options may include looking at other resources, such as increasing motor fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, sales taxes, or putting tolls in place. “I think a motor fuel tax increase is long overdue in our state as a way to recover purchasing power that has been lost,” said Gochnour. “We know of some serious needs, and having users pay a little more of the fair share would be a good decision.”

However, Gochnour admitted it is hard to pull more money out of people’s pockets who are already helping front the bill on such things as education, health care, and public safety. But another reality she mentioned is that Utah is in the bottom 10 states with the users of roads paying the very least. Gochnour says we need to change our way of thinking. “Someone who drives 40 miles to work each day should pay more for roads than somebody who works from home,” said Gochnour.

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