When you’re a transit commuter, as I am (serendipity placed the red line in my neighborhood a few years ago), the daily land war along Wasatch Front freeways can be a jolt. By necessity, I was forced to make the journey downtown behind the wheel one day last week, vying with others to establish a beachhead in the lane of my choice along the way.
Most of the time, my lane choices proved incorrect, as I quickly discovered while traffic in the lane I abandoned sped past. Still, traffic here is a relative
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picnic compared to elsewhere (an interesting metaphor, as one could, at times, spread a blanket and butter a few sandwiches during delays).
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute and a company called INRIX came out with their annual report last week on “urban mobility.” The Salt Lake area fared well. A 10-minute journey here during rush hour takes about 21 minutes, which is good enough for a 49th ranking nationwide.
Yet despite the good news, beginning in January, gas in Utah will cost 5 cents more per gallon, courtesy of a legislative decision this year to raise the gas tax. And come November, many voters along the Wasatch Front will decide whether to raise local sales taxes by one cent for every $4 purchase, which would go toward local road construction and mass transit.
An opponent of new taxes might say they aren’t needed, given that traffic here is relatively under control. A proponent of the tax might say things are under relative control precisely because Utahns are willing to raise taxes from time to time.
Whichever is true, one thing is certain. Ever since Henry Ford figured out how to make a lot of cars for little cost, bureaucrats have been complaining about the need to catch up with the demand.
A Washington Post report in 1928 lamented that signal lights and parking bans “have been outgrown.” In Paris, officials were predicting a population of 1 billion by the year 2000, and some were talking of “doing away with first floors of buildings bordering busy thoroughfares, and replacing the masonry with supporting pillars between which vehicles might pass freely.”
Imagine what this would have done to a stroll along Champs Elysees. This, the author speculated, might one day replace the saying “as a crow flies,” with “as the traffic goes.” Or perhaps today we would say, “as the Life Flight helicopter goes.”
Not only can history demonstrate the limits of population projections (Paris today has roughly 2.4 million souls), it can show how time and experience lend absurdity to ideas that once were taken seriously.
In 1928, a survey by the Union Trust Co. of Cleveland estimated there were 3 million miles of roads in the United States. Today there are nearly 4 million. But not every mile is created equal. Today’s figure includes an interstate system and impressive urban superhighways.
And yet we still aren’t keeping up. Utah’s tax increases came in part after a Utah Foundation study in 2013 estimated it would take about $11 billion more in revenue to fund the $54 billion Utah needs to pay for transportation projects over the next 30 years.
Utah is expected to grow more than 60 percent by 2030, the report said. The Wasatch Front is stuck between mountains on one side and lakes on the other, necessitating better highways and mass transit.
You get to decide in a few weeks whether to pay for part of this with sales taxes. Just know that we won’t ever be able to keep up. The bureaucrat hasn’t been born who would approach lawmakers to say current funding is enough.
Utah has done a good job of reducing congestion despite an impressive growth rate. More growth is coming, and more roads and transit are indeed needed.
There are better ways to fund it all, however, through variable tolls or fees per mile traveled.
Perhaps some day soon, when self-driving electric cars fill the streets, gas taxes will seem as silly as those old plans for drivers in Paris, and computers will help us navigate on less, rather than more, asphalt.