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Gov. Cox addresses affordable housing, FrontRunner expansion during monthly news conference

By Carlene Coombs - Daily Herald | Sep 22, 2023

Francisco Kjolseth, The Salt Lake Tribune

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.

During his monthly press conference, Gov. Spencer Cox addressed rising housing costs, the “decline of democracy” and civil discourse, Sen. Mitt Romney’s decision not to run for reelection, and expressed his support for FrontRunner expansion in southern Utah County.

Affordable housing and homelessness

Cox told a group of reporters on Thursday his “top concern” right now is rising housing costs for Utahns. He stated Utah is currently eighth in the nation for the highest median home sales cost.

The governor pointed to actions taken by the state and Legislature to help fight housing costs, such as the first-time homebuyer downpayment program that passed the legislature this year. He said state officials plan to observe action already implemented to see what is working and what is not and that they’ll “be doing more over the course of the next year.”

He added the government isn’t the only solution and noted a recent partnership between the nonprofit Ivory Innovations and FJ Management’s foundation, Call to Action. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the two foundations intend to create upwards of 850 rent-subsidized dwellings within an affordable price range for people making below their county’s median income.

The project will fund construction for the next three years in seven different Utah cities, one being Lehi.

Additionally, the state is working with local governments to ensure new developments and construction can occur and also noted a state requirement for housing around transportation hubs.

“​​We’ve taken away a little bit of authority from local communities and the idea is — look, if the state is going to invest billions of dollars for a transit hub in your community and that infrastructure, we should have more density around that transit hub,” he said.

Cox said the state is “investing more in homelessness now than ever before” but added there are still gaps to fill. He said they already developed a winter plan, calling it the “most comprehensive winter plan we’ve ever had.”

Cox added he believed unsanctioned camping needs to be eliminated, which will take work over the next year to ensure people have a place to go.

Increasing public rail services in Utah

Regarding an ongoing study by the Utah Transit Authority and Utah Department of Transportation on extending the FrontRunner train to south Utah County, the governor said he supports the project and a possible passenger train between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

“I’m a big fan of increasing train services,” Cox said. “I think it’s something, sadly, we’ve done very poorly as a country here and here in the United States.”

The South Utah Valley Transit study is exploring extending the FrontRunner to add stations in Springville, Spanish Fork and Payson. Currently, the project is in the environmental review phase with currently no funding or timeline.

The governor shared the state also needs to be careful with such projects, pointing to an expensive high-speed rail project in California that has faced troubles getting off the ground.

The governor would also like to see more high-speed trains like in Europe and Asia and believes permitting issues are one of the things preventing the U.S. from doing so.

“It’s crazy that the most innovative country in the history of the world can’t figure this out, how to do high-speed trains and not spend billions and billions of dollars,” Cox said.

UTA is also seeking a grant to study a passenger train with services to Las Vegas and Boise from Salt Lake City, according to KSL.

‘Decline of democracy’ and civil political discourse

During the press conference, Cox said he believes the nation is in a “declining democracy,” noting increased threats to elected officials and Americans’ exhaustion with politics.

“If we don’t wake up as a society, we don’t stop playing with fire, stop the hatred that we’re exhibiting towards our fellow Americans who have some disagreements, we can end up in a very dark place,” he said.

Recently, the governor started an initiative called “Disagree Better” as part of his position as chair of the National Governors Association, which aims to reduce polarization and foster productive discourse.

“I believe that political polarization is the main driver … in failed and declining democracies and a republic like ours,” he said.

In response to an alleged assault on the Orem mayor after a City Council meeting Tuesday, Cox said he hoped it would be a wake-up call to “disagree better as a society.”

“Our inability to communicate with each other in positive ways, instead leading to this type of hostility where we see a person physically assaulting an elected official, whether you think they deserve it or not, that’s just unacceptable,” he said.

Sen. Mitt Romney stepping down

The governor expressed his respect and gratitude for Romney’s six years as Utah’s senator, saying, “We’ve been very lucky to have his leadership.”

Romney announced last week that he would not be running for reelection, citing his age and saying it was time for the younger generation to step up.

Cox said he “truly respected” the senator’s reasoning for not pursuing reelection, adding there are two presidential candidates who he wished would do the same, likely referring to President Joe Biden, 80, and former President Donald Trump, 77.

Regarding who will replace Romney, Cox stated he had a “tentative endorsement” for current Utah State House Speaker Brad Wilson, who hasn’t made an official announcement but has started an exploratory committee for a U.S. Senate run. Wilson also recently resigned from the Utah House, effective Nov. 15.

Cox also addressed the controversy surrounding Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard, who is rumored to also be considering running for Romney’s seat.

According to Deseret News, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a statement saying Ballard had used the name of church apostle M. Russell Ballard without authorization for his personal benefit and actions deemed “morally unacceptable.”

During the press conference, Cox said he had personally reached out to the church about the statement, which confirmed the statement’s authenticity.


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