SALT LAKE CITY — Today, the average Wasatch Front commuter spends a little under an hour driving to and from work.
By 2050 — when Utah's population is projected to hit more than 5 million — that commute time could jump to an hour and 40 minutes.
On top of that, housing prices will be even higher, and there will be little improvement in air quality.
That is — if cities and counties don't change the way they plan communities or transit in the next few decades, said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, to a crowd of mayors, city council members and other local officials Tuesday. More than 100 people, including business leaders and other community advocates, attended the Wasatch Choice 2050 + Mayor's Metro-Solutions Symposium at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
"Growth. We keep hearing about it," Gruber said. "It's this omnipresent issue. We have been growing, we are growing today, we will continue to grow in the future, and we have all that growth occurring here in the Wasatch Front — we're bounded by the mountains on one side and then the lake and the mountains on the other.
"Just think about the impacts that growth will have on our quality of life if we stay on the current path we're on," Gruber continued.
So looking ahead — knowing Utah is facing a huge population boom in the next three decades — Gruber posed the question: What can local leaders do to preserve the state's quality of life, from ensuring housing is affordable to preventing bottlenecks on the interstate?
The answer, he said, comes from local leaders strategically working together to plan for the future and build smarter communities — with more housing options, prioritizing open space and more transit-oriented developments, with a variety of transportation choices.
In partnership with the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams announced the Wasatch Choice for 2050 vision, an initiative to encourage cities and counties to work together to plan for the population boom along the Wasatch Front. It is an update to the 2040 plan Wasatch Front communities established 10 years ago.
The Wasatch Choice 2050 vision is in draft form, Gruber said, so he's hoping residents will give input on what they want for their communities. More information about the plan is available at wfrc.org.
"If we don't coordinate with cities and counties, you'll see wasted tax dollars first and foremost," McAdams said. "You'll have an investment — maybe a road widening in one city that bottlenecks in the next city."
McAdams said residents "expect" their elected officials to "collaborate and plan" to create communities that work cohesively together, and not create islands that result in congestion, poor air quality and low quality of life.
For example, communities can work to create more jobs within their areas, to encourage people to live closer to their workplaces rather than commute across cities or even counties, McAdams said.
If cities and counties work to implement the goals of the Wasatch Choice 2050 vision, residents could have access to 57 percent more jobs within 30 minutes of their homes in the next 30 years, Gruber said.
The plan would require "shifting" the percentage of the Wasatch Front's housing stock from its current 75 percent single-family, 25 percent multifamily to 60 percent single family, 40 percent multifamily, Gruber said.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell said as a local official, it can be frustrating to confront challenges as difficult as transportation and air quality, especially when elected officials can be "held captive to the tyranny of the urgent" when day-to-day problems can overshadow the big picture.
"Even driving down this morning from Ogden to get here it was really congested," Caldwell said. "I was thinking, if we double the population, we're going to end up being stuck in islands along the Wasatch Front because we can't get anywhere. … I don't want to see that. I don't want my kids to see that."
Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, which projects Utah's population will exceed 5 million by 2050, urged local officials to look ahead and work together to plan for a future that maintains Utah's quality of life for future generations.
"We are changing," Gochnour said. "We are not spectators, but participants in that change. It doesn't just happen to us. We get a say. And we absolutely have the power to shape our future."