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Informed decisions: Weighing Utah’s need for water, roads and mass transit

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Editor's note: "Informed Decisions 2016" is a project headed by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, in partnership with the Deseret News and KSL Broadcasting, to identify issues and policy to help drive public debate and discussion during this election year. This is the second in an ongoing series of articles.

SALT LAKE CITY — Keeping up with a growing population and economy means more than filling freeway potholes and installing efficient sprinkler systems.

It includes ensuring reliable funding for long-term infrastructure enhancements, providing traditional and alternative transportation options, policies that incentivize water conservation, and perhaps most important — planning.

That's the consensus of several focus group meetings between state policymakers, business leaders, economic experts and community members. Those discussions were facilitated through a collaboration between the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, in partnership with the Deseret News and KSL Broadcasting.

Infrastructure, in addition to education and taxes, is one of the key issues that should inform voters' decisions as they elect their leaders in the 2016 election, according to Dianne Meppen, director of survey research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. More than anything, it's a time for Utahns to visualize what the future holds for the state, she said.

"We need this long-term vision," Meppen said. "Transportation is extremely important, and to have a high-quality transportation infrastructure helps us economically."

Gas tax

Prior to last year, Utah's motor fuel tax had been set at 24.5 cents per gallon, a rate that was adopted in 1997. Since then, inflation and improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency have caused transportation costs to outpace revenue generated by the tax, posing a $11.3 billion shortfall in projected transportation needs over the next 25 years, according to legislative researchers.


Lawmakers passed a bill in the 2015 Legislature in an attempt to address that shortfall, creating a formula that allows the gas tax to rise and fall with the price of fuel but not fall below 29.4 cents per gallon. The increase, which went into effect late last year, was estimated to cost an extra $140 a year for Utah families earning $50,000 a year.

It's a start, but Utah is far from catching up.

"People that were leaders in government and business groups felt like the gas tax had not gone far enough," Meppen said. "It wasn't going to make up what was necessary for (how far) we've fallen behind."

What accentuates Utah's need for efficient transportation resources is the fact that the majority of its population is condensed between the mountains and lakes along the Wasatch Front. And the ability for the state's economy to continue to thrive depends largely on robust transportation infrastructure, according to Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

"It's important for voters to understand the need to appropriately invest in our infrastructure while balancing the tax burdens on our citizens," Gruber said. "The area that we refer to as the Point of the Mountain is important for the future of our region and our state because it is growing so fast. But these are questions that are relevant to the entire region."

Members of the focus group said nonuser fees should be explored since all residents benefit from Utah roads in some way. Some also expressed willingness to adjust the gas tax again, though it's no small task legislators.

Last year's increase passed in the final hours of the 45-day session.

"It took 17 years before we finally got to it last time," said West Valley Republican Rep. Sophia DiCaro. "It's one that I think we should keep talking about so people are aware and not caught off guard. But I also don't know that there's going to be the will to address that further."

Utah Transit Authority

Services provided by the Utah Transit Authority also have a part to play, according to focus group members. But Utahns remain frustrated by the conduct, transparency and accountability of UTA leadership in using taxpayer dollars.

Voters in Salt Lake and Utah counties turned down Proposition 1, a recent ballot measure to increase funding for roads that passed in other counties. Some members of the focus groups saw the proposition's failure as a manifestation of public concerns over UTA debt, misuse of funds, and salaries and bonuses of UTA officials, Meppen said.

An open records request by the Deseret News and KSL last fall revealed that UTA leaders and lobbyists traveled with legislative leaders to Switzerland, unbeknownst to the UTA board and the Governor's Office of Economic Development. The trip raised questions of transparency in UTA's bidding process.

"They see the public as holding kind of a sense of mistrust," Meppen said of the focus groups.

In March of 2015, UTA's board of trustees restructured the way administrative leaders are paid in an effort to rebuild public trust.

Participants also discussed a need for enhanced transit options in western Salt Lake County, a strategic transportation plan for the state and better public awareness of how taxpayer dollars are used in improving transportation infrastructure.

Presenting a comprehensive vision is essential before voters will "take a leap of faith" in funding long-term road projects, Meppen said. Focus group members believe that's another reason Proposition 1 didn't pass.

"They couldn't visualize wanting to pay more taxes for repairing potholes or just buses," she said. "When there was a tax increase for FrontRunner or for a line of TRAX, there's a vision. People see something."

Water conservation

Utah's population, which reached 3 million people last summer, puts a heavier strain on water resources every year. Yet the cost of water usage for residents remains a fraction of what other cities in the West charge per gallon.

Water rate structures are relatively flat for Ogden, Salt Lake City and St. George. The price per 1,000 gallons in each area is $3 or less, whether consumers use 10,000 gallons or 50,000 gallons.


In contrast, Phoenix and Las Vegas charge more than $4 per 1,000 gallons. Tucson and Denver use step rate structures where the price of water increases as more water is used, topping out at more than $10 per 1,000 gallons.

Meppen said the Utah leaders and community members felt a general need for better understanding of Utah's long-term drought situation among voters. But current policies and price structures don't help the conservation message.

"We did hear in multiple groups that until water becomes expensive, people won't stop watering liberally," she said. "We also heard that Utah is not really ready for a spike in population waterwise."

Not all participants were in favor of raising water prices. But finding ways to cut back on water use were common proposals, especially for water districts, and industrial and commercial users. Implementing secondary water systems, such as rain collection or wells, could be possible solutions in future water policy, Meppen said.

DiCaro, who participated in the group discussions, said changing behaviors in preparation for Utah's future requires action and awareness among voters, regardless of what happens at the policy level.

"I think people are aware that there's going to be increased demand in infrastructure," she said. "But I'm not sure people get a sense of the scale of that."

Coming Saturday: Balancing tax burden and statewide needs.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen