Could UDOT — not UTA — oversight of large public transit projects save Utah ‘billions?’
Bill would put big projects like double-tracking FrontRunner line under transportation department
A new bill in the Utah Legislature would let the state oversee development of massive transit projects, including a proposal to double-track the FrontRunner rail line.
Such projects are currently overseen by the Utah Transit Authority, but would fall under the supervision of the Utah Department of Transportation if HB322 passes. In the long run, House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said the change would make transportation cheaper for Utahns and would meet the transit demands for a rapidly growing region.
“We have to start thinking 10, 20, 30 years down the road,” he said. “You think about the congestion going north-south along I-15 right now. We know we cannot widen I-15 enough to meet the demands of the population growth 10 to 20 years from now.”
Schultz said that highways across the Wasatch Front are being outpaced by population growth, and added that there need to be significant investments in east-west transit options in both Salt Lake and Utah counties.
HB322 was made public on Friday. A fiscal analysis is still ongoing and it is unclear what the move would cost initially.
By bringing major projects under one roof and ensuring that UTA and UDOT are working toward the same goals, Schultz expects to save taxpayers billions of dollars over the next couple of decades.
“In many places — not all — but in many places across the country, transit agencies and the traditional departments of transportation are often at odds with each other,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “And the fact that here, first of all, it’s not the case, but we’re even now bringing them more closely together by having UDOT execute the capital projects and the infrastructure, which they do well. I think that benefits us and is one of the things that I think will be a real advantage to us in the future.”
UTA would still operate trains and buses once projects are completed and would be able to develop their own smaller projects. UDOT would manage large projects — some costing hundreds of millions of dollars — using state funds.
Future of transit in Utah
Schultz called the bill the result of a “collaborative process,” and said he doesn’t have any concerns about the agencies working together.
“We can’t build enough roads to meet the demands,” he said. “Transit is going to have to be a viable option going in the future. We’re lucky to have that leadership now and so that you have that (collaboration) a little bit already.”
Many lawmakers also view improved transit as a way to combat Utah’s notorious air pollution. Public transportation is free for the remainder of February, thanks to an effort by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and UTA. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring a bill this session that would make UTA free for riders year-round.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, is also sponsoring a transit-adjacent bill, which would encourage low-income housing be built near FrontRunner stations.
Meeting Utah’s growing need for infrastructure and transit will require “being visionary,” Schultz said, and said that leaders are still looking for the best way to proceed.
“Do we do roads? Do we do transit?” he said. “What’s the best way to move forward to get the best bang for our buck?”