Motorists who find themselves frustrated by frequent confrontations with a slalom course of orange barrels along a stretch of road repair should look on the bright side — Utah is gaining a national reputation for taking care of its transportation infrastructure in a way that has made other states envious, and it has enhanced its image as a top place for new business growth.
A recent report by a nonprofit think tank gives Utah high marks for investing in state road projects in a survey that shows an increase in spending on transportation needs much greater than in any other state in the last year. A report by the Reason Foundation, which describes itself as a promoter of “libertarian principles,” elevated Utah in its rankings of performance and cost effectiveness in road management from 29th in the nation to 13th, a massive jump not matched by any other state. The primary reason is an increased rate of investment in transportation, which other state governments have looked upon with jealousy.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently led an expedition of business and civic leaders to Utah to take note of the state’s relatively high rate of expenditures in transportation upkeep. Utah spends about $660 million a year on road expansion, while Colorado spends about $159 million. The results include less congestion, safer conditions and a general benefit to statewide commerce.
The Utah Department of Transportation has successfully managed to eke out more funds from the state budget by convincing lawmakers that investments in transportation conditions will pay for themselves by facilitating more private business development and a commensurate increase in the tax base. Indeed, Utah was ranked as the best state in the nation for business this year by the cable channel CNBC, which cited investments in infrastructure as one of the key metrics in the analysis.
The lesson is that you can’t take care of infrastructure needs without biting the budget bullet and freeing up the needed cash. Following the state’s suit, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski made it a priority in her first budget to increase spending on road upkeep in the capital city after years of restraint. Since 2008, the city has diverted funds typically used for road maintenance to other needs. The mayor proposed, and the City Council approved, a $7.75 million appropriation of state-allocated funds for needed road work, a significant sum that will help reverse a trend of deteriorating conditions. Municipal transportation officials have estimated that two-thirds of the roads in the city are in “poor” or “very poor” condition.
Certainly, investment in infrastructure comes at a cost. State and local budgets contain many other priorities, all of which carry good arguments for increased spending. Utah policymakers have come to realize that putting money toward highways and city streets is not a winner-take-all game. A modern and functional infrastructure is a hallmark of a strong local economy, and keeping the roadways in good shape can literally help pave the way toward sustained economic growth.