Forces of free enterprise can improve Utah’s transportation system

Written by Zach Schofield

December 5, 2019

Originally published in Deseret News.

The holidays are a busy time, further crowding the freeways and local roads of an already busy state. Utah may not have the worst traffic, but some days it sure feels like it. And with population and job growth at some of the highest rates in the country, Utah certainly seems to be heading in the direction of worsening transportation problems.

Business and policy leaders alike are hard at work fielding potential solutions. Tax reform proposals seek to increase transportation funding by removing sales tax exemptions on fuel for motor vehicles. An August poll tested public support for raising the gas tax and implementing toll roads. UTA released plans in October to spend $400 million on new stations and bus routes. Use of electric scooters has been expanding, although they may face regulation; Solitude ski resort has decided to charge for parking; and — did I read that right? — UDOT is preparing for flying cars. All of these developments are just a few months old.

As transportation thinkers maneuver through technological challenges, public opinion and funding realities to address transportation issues in the face of growth, they should keep in mind a few principles that can pave the way to practical transportation solutions.

One principle is that the forces of free enterprise — multiple entities vying for our business — can improve the transportation system. Today most people hop in their car regardless of how far or where they are going because for many there aren’t viable alternatives. Cars offer great mobility, but over-reliance on them causes congestion and requires expensive investments in new roads and freeways. If people have competing options— conventional driving, ridesharing, toll roads, public transit, electric scooters, etc. — with price points related to each option, they are likely to make a decision which both improves their quality of life and benefits the rest of society.

Where markets for transportation are functional, transportation options are bound to improve. The way Uber and Lyft have offered new choices and changed traditional taxi service, for example, show how free enterprise can deliver transportation solutions if given the chance.

But there are ways that transportation infrastructure is unique relative to other markets. Because transportation is interwoven with local, state and federal government, a good transportation system is best found in cooperation with these institutions — another important principle to keep in mind. We can surmise that market forces will attract certain people toward non-car alternatives, but without government policy that enables customer choice, little will change. Additionally, if federal, state or local governments pick favorites among various transportation options, the market’s ability to improve transportation will be muted. Government may need to learn to be more responsive to citizens’ preferences as revealed in markets, and businesses may need to learn to work well with the public sector.

Another helpful principle is to focus on the common interests that most Utahns share. We don’t want to sit in traffic as we’re going about our day. We don’t want to waste money. We want to be safe. We want clean air and to protect our environment. Remembering our common goals can help us evaluate proposed solutions and achieve common ground.

Focusing on common goals can guide us as we answer the legitimate questions from those with concerns about a specific policy option and avoid dismissing them based on power politics or partisan considerations. If Utah raises the gas tax again, will we disproportionately burden drivers of certain cars? Will tolls limit the mobility of low-income residents? How can we maximize the mobility benefits of e-scooters while limiting the risk to pedestrians? How viable are flying vehicles really? The process of answering questions like these will produce more thoughtful and effective policy when we remember what goals the larger community shares.

In truth, there will be a lot of unknowns associated with any transportation choice. The new ideas at the forefront of the public consciousness today will certainly not be the last transportation innovations, and they may not be the best ones either. But as we tease out the future of a fast-growing state, let’s be open to innovative ideas in a state that needs it. We share common goals. Now let’s go find common ground.

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