LEHI — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert took a moment to show off his piloting skills at an event Wednesday to kick off a massive, $430 million I-15 expansion project in the north end of Utah County.
Herbert flew a camera-equipped drone over a segment of the project — one that will likely contribute to some additional commuter challenges before helping ease traffic snarls when it's completed in about three years.
The so-called I-15 Technology Corridor project will add two lanes on both the northbound and southbound sides from Lehi's Main Street to state Route 92, for a total of six lanes in both directions on completion. Interchange renovations are also in the mix, as well as 13 bridge rebuilds and the construction of a new bridge that will span I-15 connecting the east and west legs of Triumph Boulevard.
Herbert said investment in additional capacity for the chronically congested section of roadway isn't only about reducing commute times.
"It’s not just a matter of convenience," Herbert said. "It really is about economic growth, too. We will have a hard time continuing to grow economically if we do not solve the problem of transportation."
That growth, an issue also being grappled with by the Point of the Mountain Development Commission, is expected to propel Utah County past Salt Lake County in terms of population in the next 50 years and continue to test the resilience of not just the I-15 freeway, but travel corridors on both sides, and across the state's busiest interstate.
For those who may feel like I-15 construction through south Salt Lake County and Utah County has been perpetual, Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras said this project marks an end point. At least for now.
"This is the last piece of the project we launched many years ago," Braceras said. "This will make the last connection between Utah County and Salt Lake County."
Thanks in part to the Utah Legislature's approval of a $1 billion transportation bonding package in the 2017 session, the current project, which was originally slated to begin in 2020, was moved up the priority list.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he and his colleagues in the Legislature tend toward fiscal conservatism and are usually hesitant to support bonding efforts. But in this instance, Stuart said simple economics carried the day.
"We all knew what had to be done, how to fund this project," Stuart said. "We looked at the inflationary rate of construction costs, and the longer we waited … we saw the cost of building it going up."
Stuart said thanks to a stellar AAA credit rating, the state can secure sub-2 percent interest on bonding for the project. That rate easily beats the pace of increasing highway construction costs, which have been on a steady rise since the end of the Great Recession, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration.
While the tech corridor expansion will help accommodate the massive volume of traffic passing through the area each day, work that's been underway for the past year and a half by the Point of the Mountain Development Commission has concluded that a hefty investment in public transit development will also be necessary to maintain quality of life issues in the area, help address the valley's horrendous air quality and prevent commute times from expanding to the point of dissuading new business development.
The commission released a "preferred scenario" in January, outlining a consensus agreement on the best approach to responsibly managing the growth in the same area where the I-15 expansion is taking place. That report suggests an investment of over $11 billion in transportation and transit projects over the next few decades in order to keep up with the population rise. At the moment, there are no new public transportation infrastructure projects either planned or funded in the area, according to Utah Transit Authority spokesman Carl Arky.
In spite of the dearth of current, active public transit projects, Herbert said the future will include additional state funding for public transportation infrastructure expansions.
"I think what we need to do is invest strategically in all our transportation systems, that would include mass transit," Herbert said. "We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars and we’ll spend additional hundreds of millions of dollars continuing on mass transit. We’re not going to stop, it will be a matter of both."
Herbert also added that changes enacted by the Legislature in this year's session to how UTA is managed included tweaks that likely will create new funding opportunities for transit projects.
"(Now) we can take our typical transportation fund and expand it beyond just roads, highways and byways into, in fact, mass transit," Herbert said. "That’s the first time we’ve been able to take money from one bucket and put it into another bucket.
"With this new governance structure, I think you're going to see very strategic investments and continuing to make sure we have optimal benefit for transportation."
UTA board member Alex Cragun said public transportation expansion will be critical in accommodating the expected growth along the Wasatch Front while also helping to address air quality issues and preserving a place that people will be drawn to.
"Investing in roads is important but, in terms of our long-term growth, we can’t build more roads out of this problem," Cragun said. "The end goal to reduce our pollution is remove cars from the roads. And that will require further investment in public transportation."
Cragun, who is also the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party and former director of transit advocacy group, Utah Transit Riders Union, said the increasing population density in the area lays good groundwork for efficient transit expansion, like new TRAX lines.
"As long as there is a demand for service in those areas, we should be talking about light rail," Cragun said. "We need to be making sure that we’re not only planning and building rail in a smart manner, but aligning that around housing and economic opportunities that sustain people."