It’s been 20 years and a couple of months since Utah’s 14th governor, Mike Leavitt, left his third term as the state’s chief executive a bit early to serve, on the request of then President George W. Bush, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

And just a couple years later, Leavitt would join Bush’s cabinet as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

But at a Monday policy forum, hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and an event marking the release of Leavitt’s five-part memoir, the longtime public servant distinguished his time as Utah’s top elected official.

“Serving as governor was the professional opportunity of my life,” Leavitt told the audience at Monday’s discussion. “It was a wonderful privilege. It was like receiving the world’s best scholarship.”

Back to the future?

Leavitt said “a lot has changed” since that time but also underscored that many of the same critical challenges facing the state two-plus decades ago are back to relevance, including housing issues, matching higher education outcomes to employment needs and, yes, Utah freeways that are once again packed on a regular basis.

In a monograph on highway construction, Leavitt wrote that early in his first term he came to recognize that Utah’s explosive population growth was straining roads across the state but particularly so through the state’s largest metropolitan area, Salt Lake County, and a section of I-15 that had not seen an upgrade for decades.

“Every day, the traffic congestion commuters faced rivaled California’s worst,” Leavitt wrote. “Utahns had outgrown a system built 30 years earlier, which was now antiquated in terms of size, design, safety and efficiency.

“For example, two major interstates — Interstate 15 (I-15) and Interstate 80 (I-80) — converged in Salt Lake City but used the same three lanes for several miles through the city center before diverging. The totality of these factors made traffic during peak periods untenable and a daily reminder of Utah’s growth challenges.”

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As Leavitt was taking his first steps to formulate a plan to address the snarls, a big announcement elevated the need for an expansive roadway redo. On June 16, 1995, Salt Lake City was named to host the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“The prospect of having the world visit Utah and experiencing the congestion was unacceptable,” Leavitt wrote. “I knew I needed to lead out on the issue and that I-15 would be the prime objective.”

Leavitt said he knew he was asking a lot of residents and was hoping they had the patience to endure four years of disruption and discomfort that would include tearing down and rebuilding over 16 miles of freeway in Utah’s busiest metropolitan area, replacing 142 overpasses, eight urban interchanges, and the junctions with I-80 and I-215 — all at the same time.

While the project was completed on time for Utah’s debut Olympic hosting duties, the state once again finds itself with an Olympic event on the horizon and a transportation system that is in dire need for new investment, a focus of one of a trio of panel discussions on Monday.

Tom Warne, who was the head of the Utah Department of Transportation when the 1990s I-15 rebuild was underway, said critics at the time argued that putting in 10 lanes was outrageous and “we will never fill them.”

Transportation is more than road building

Utah’s population has continued to boom, and now finds itself officially a member of the “midsize” group of states, and, according to a Gardner Policy Institute report released last October, once again finds itself facing widespread traffic congestion. Wasatch Front Regional Council Executive Director Andrew Gruber notes solving transportation challenges requires a broader effort than just funding new highway projects.

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“Our legislature has made huge investments in roads, transit and trails,” Gruber said. “As we become a medium-size state, we have to provide these options and choices for people. For where they live and how they want to get around.

“Transportation investment alone is not enough. Land use itself has to be a strategy for how we absorb growth. How and where we grow is just as important as our transportation investments.”

Mobility will be tech-enabled

Leavitt said technology advancements are playing an increasingly pertinent role in transportation planning and recounted a visit to Beijing, China, where he had the chance to tour an autonomous vehicle test area. He noted China now has some 200 companies working on advancing autonomous vehicle technology.

“When we talk about driving around an autonomous vehicle, it’s not just what’s going on with the car,” Leavitt said. “It’s what’s going on with infrastructure.”

And that’s an area in which Utah transportation planners have embraced a good deal of preparation foresight, according to current UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras, who said the agency has been requiring the installation of fiber optic infrastructure in new projects for years which has led to a nation-leading connectivity.

“Ninety-seven percent of all the traffic signals in the state are connected,” Braceras said. “There’s not a state in the country that has anything like that.”

And that connectivity is “a setup for connected autonomous vehicles,” Braceras added.

Sponsored by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, in partnership with the Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics, the invite-only “Past is Prologue” public policy discussions, featuring Leavitt and a wide range of state leaders, continue in April with further panel topics including Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid, caring for those in need and taxation issues.