Law makers in Utah are scratching their heads trying to figure out how they are going to pay the current road maintenance shortfall. Possible solutions on the table are higher gas taxes or another sales tax hike. These solutions only aggravate tax payers as we are told there are currently record surplus funds that lawmakers don't know how to spend. But of course, we are then told different money goes to different places, its impossible to use our surplus for roads, (duhh, of course). (source) In the wake of the Minnesota bridge collapse, Governor Huntsman doubled the amount dedicated to bridge inspection and repair. (source)The current price tag is $60 million dollars for bridge maintenance alone.
"In FY2008, the state will be spending nearly $790 million in one-time and ongoing general fund dollars for roads, up from nearly zero in 1990"
As Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front continue to grow at an incredible pace, the price tag to support this growth is also increasing at a pace that is both greater than inflation and greater than the new revenue gained from new residents. What does this tell us? That Utah isn't practicing smart growth we are practicing dumb growth. New projects alone are already billed into 2030 have a price tag of over $50 billion dollars. (source)
As leaders are finding more budget increases are necessary to keep up with the pace of growth, in many citizens estimations state leaders are not doing nearly enough. The traffic problems during rush hour heading both North and South along I-15 should have been alleviated with the completion of the $1.5 billion dollar construction project before the Olympics. That stretch should have at least another 10 years of life before traffic volume would exceed its size, but estimates will fall far short.
Residents in South Jordan are also voicing their outrage with how slow it is taking for the state to begin building the Mountain View corridor. If the current process of: study, review, environmental impact study, design the finally construction --continues at the current snails pace, it seems that the Salt Lake Valley is heading on a collision course with inevitably more traffic problems.
Cities have recently found new innovative solutions to managing both sprawl and road maintenance. The increasing price tag on road maintenance lead three cities to try something different. Chicago, Indiana and Texas are now leasing out several of their major highways to private firms that manage both toll collection and road maintenance. This privatization effort has lead to auctions between private management companies looking to invest huge sums of cash for international pension funds. These firms estimate that traffic will grow at a rate of 3% a year and provide a steady flow of cash for their clients. The most recent lease agreement initiative established by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels auctioned the rights to operate their toll road for a up front payment of $3.85 billion dollars. (source)
The major objection to the privatization initiative is that the management oversight company wouldn't conduct maintenance as well as the state departments of transportation. This objection has proven invalid because typically there is a clause built into these contracts that allows states to take back toll income and highway ownership if maintenance isn't performed to a minimum requirement. Usually the management of these roads over performs on maintenance because their profits depend on exceptional comfort and ease in driving on their freeways.
Its clear that Utah and the West cannot continue to grow under the same outdated model that is proven so expensive. The costs of sprawl are not only in road/bridge construction and maintenance but also utility lines, water treatment facilities and sewer systems that need to stretch greater and greater distances. The health impact of pollution has been studied recently and people who live in cities with poor air quality are far more at risk for myriad ailments. Improved transit, urban housing and privatization of highways are all key ingredients curtailing the side affects of sprawl.
In the coming weeks we will have a second installment to this article that focuses on an international comparison, with interviews of Europeans and video footage of some of the best transit and urban designs in the world. For our previous look at smart growth click here.
Utah is already pays a large portion of our general sales tax revenue to sustain roads.(source) Every year since 1990 maintenance costs have been eating up more of the general fund. This has caused lawmakers look at rising gasoline taxes. More gasoline tax hikes will are detrimental to the economy because costs of goods are dependent upon gas prices. Gas taxes also often inflict lower wager earners such as truck drivers, couriers, cab drivers the hardest.
The better solution is to use toll roads or congestion fees. Tolls and congestion taxes are the most pure usage fee and they don't impose excessive taxes on those who aren't part of the problem. The best way to curb the sprawl is impose taxes that will alter commuter behavior, and that is what these taxes are designed to do. (more on congestion taxes)
Another solution adopted by Eastern cities has been to offer more affordable housing in and around downtown. Unfortunately the means in which this is accomplished are by imposing price restrictions on landlords for apartments in downtown areas. The side effect of this is always housing shortages because developers don't want to build apartment complexes when they know the government will restrict their profits. An alternative solution is to allow for more mixed use development and loosen zoning laws. Planners should allow apartment buildings to be built taller in current "gray areas" (areas that are blighted or under foreclosure because they are either in poor neighborhoods or they are close to busy streets.)
The most obvious solution would be to offer more transit options. You have probably heard the slogan, "for every rider there is one fewer car." However, Law makers often point to the statistics of the low usage transit already receives. Higher wage earners rarely will ride UTA buses. However, transit proponents say this is due to the current lack of funding for attractive bus stops, rail stations and easy access transit hubs. Compare transit in the United States to transit in almost any other developed nation and you will find that our transit, especially in the West, is far inferior.
City planners and traffic engineers agree that the root of the traffic congestion has less to do with population increase and more to do with people choosing to live miles away from their places of business. As home prices along the Wasatch Front continue to increase, people are often choosing to live further away from the city and outlying suburbs to more distant suburbs where there is more affordable housing. Accommodating this trend by building wider highways only exacerbates the problem because as wider highways accommodate the trend the practice continues.
Projects like the new UTA Frontrunner commuter rail, will begin operation in the spring of 2008. Frontrunner in combination with the Legacy Highway will no doubt alleviate the severe commuting times Davis Country residents face. However, Frontrunner will only accommodate a very small percentage of commuters. However, least the Federal Government is recognizing the problem and subsidizing 60 percent of Frontrunner's cost.
Commuter rail is indeed one piece of the puzzle for making real progress towards curtailing sprawl. There are many in the Utah Legislature who are trying to stop the efforts that are underway to get more people out of their cars. Even such a obvious issue as sprawl has become a bipartisan issue. Conservatives generally believe anti-sprawl measures are a liberal agenda bias against progress and the wealthy. This conservative thinker, however, doesn't see it that way. Indeed there are some very bad tax policies liberals have come up with for curtailing sprawl, such as increasing all sorts of taxes. The following are some very smart measures that Utah leaders should further examine to counter sprawl and its side effects.
book recommendations on cultural problems stemming from poor planning:
recommended sprawl and smart growth links