Legislature can help Utahns solve growth issues

Written by Zach Schofield

February 4, 2019

Originally published in Utah Policy.

Utah is growing – it’s one of the fastest-growing states in the country. This is great news, but it also presents the Legislature with unique issues. This year, the Legislature has the opportunity to pursue solutions to our state’s growing pains that will preserve and enhance our quality of life for decades to come – not just until re-election time.

The best solutions to many complex, growth-related issues will be found as the Legislature returns more freedom to Utahns.
For example, Utahns are worried about the supply of water. With precipitation down and more people arriving, this is becoming an increasingly pressing issue. The fear of water shortages prompted the pursuit of both the Bear River Development Project and Lake Powell Pipeline – billion-dollar projects that will increase water supply for the Wasatch Front and the St. George area, respectively. The high cost of these two projects, however – and the likelihood that the more advanced Lake Powell Pipeline will precipitate higher water rates, property taxes and impact fees – has given the Legislature and Utahns headaches for more than two decades.

One way the Legislature can address this issue is to keep the ball rolling on improving water usage reporting between state and local entities and pursue pricing mechanisms that penalize wasteful water use – allowing cities and households to self-regulate and thereby drive down consumption per person. This might put off the need for expensive projects further into the future, or narrow the scope of these projects if they are ultimately built.

Take transportation. The amount of money generated in Utah by fuel taxes had been slowly declining for years until a tax increase in 2016. Yet as vehicles increase in efficiency and more of them are electric powered, this problem will only return and get worse. Add to this the fact that freeway expansion is becoming more expensive because it requires condemnation of more and more homes and businesses along the corridor. Without adequate funding and planning for expansion of freeways and public transit, crippling gridlock may result as the Wasatch Front community grows in the years to come.

This year, the legislature can build on reforms made in transportation in 2018 by implementing more user-based principles in funding and planning. Perhaps this is the year to consider tolling along some busy corridors in the state, or swapping the gas tax for a mileage-based fee – equally applicable to all that use the road. Perhaps this is the year to require UTA to cover a higher percentage of its operations from ticket sales. These policy ideas allow Utahns’ daily choices to fund infrastructure, moderate traffic, and enable the Utah of tomorrow to adequately provide for a burgeoning population.

We see similar challenges with our air quality, housing, water quality, and on and on.

Here’s the theme: When Utahns are presented with a variety of reasonable choices and then experience the costs and benefits of those choices, many of these issues may not only resolve themselves but set the stage for solving other related problems as well. User-based transportation may encourage people to live closer to work, contributing to improved air quality. Moderated water consumption may decrease the need for expensive infrastructure upgrades – whether these be big projects, or simply pipes that run through city streets – saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

By restoring more freedom to individual Utahns, our communities will be better equipped to tackle the unique challenges they face and innovate solutions that other communities can adopt. They can remain a great place to live, resilient in the face of economic crises, and bear the pressure of population growth. What the Legislature can do is provide the framework that incentivizes communities to make decisions that are in their own and the state’s best interests.

The rapid population growth our state is now seeing – and which is expected to continue for decades – is a reflection of the wealth of opportunity, the sound governance, and the good people of this state. This new development in our history requires different approaches to problem-solving. By enacting forward-thinking policy that enables the various communities in our state to shape their quality of life, the Legislature will be restoring to Utahns the tools they need to build economic prosperity for decades to come.

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