South Jordan city officials got it right last week. They voted to drop out of the UTOPIA project because the price tag is too high. Too bad more cities aren't realizing the same thing.
UTOPIA is the name of a multi-city effort to wire every home and business along the Wasatch Front with fiber optic cable. The $540 million venture would be funded by a bond that, organizers hope, would be paid off by subscribers to Internet services that use the cable. But the bond would require each participating city to pledge a portion of its sales tax revenue for 20 straight years.
In South Jordan's case, that would mean setting aside $1.14 million. City officials correctly calculated they would have very little left with which to run their city. Other cities, such as Orem, have come to a different conclusion. They believe the fiber-optic cable would attract economic development and be a tremendous selling point for people looking to relocate.
Clearly, governments could do a lot of different things to attract economic development, but there is a limit to what taxpayers can bear.
The scariest part of UTOPIA is the ease with which its proponents assert it is "future proof." The bonds would take 20 long years to retire, and the public is supposed to believe that nothing will come along in that time to make fiber-optic obsolete? Not only that, the public is supposed to believe that nothing will happen during that time to make fiber-optic less expensive and easier for private companies to install?
Anyone who spent hundreds of dollars on an electronic calculator or a digital watch 30 years ago can tell you what time and engineering do to technology. They make it cheaper. The city of Murray laid a bit of fiber-optic cable years ago and is now looking to sell it at a loss, for that very reason.
Much of the fervor toward UTOPIA seems driven by a hatred for Qwest, Comcast and other providers who, for one reason or another, haven't lived up to some people's expectations. In a bizarre reversal of the usual conservative arguments heard in Utah, we are asked to believe that governments would be more responsive and accountable than the private sector.
But besides the obvious flaws in this reasoning, one big factor is hard to overlook. The private businesses pay taxes as they respond to consumer demands. Local governments won't pay taxes while laying these lines. All they will do is tie up a lot of sales tax revenue for 20 years.
Some cities, including Salt Lake City, have yet to decide whether to commit to UTOPIA. They should follow South Jordan's example and let their pocketbooks override their emotions.