Sunday, October 02, 2005

Northern Utah Transportation Problems, or The Davis County Blind Spot

Today, I passed a stretch of road where the I-15 carpool lane is being extended further into Utah County. It is planned to reach University Parkway in Orem. I think that this is a good thing, since there is a lot of traffic along that route, including a great deal of commuting. At the same time, I noticed that the current carpool lane stretches from exactly downtown Salt Lake through the south end of the valley. It is as though nobody commutes to or from the north.

This is merely a symptom of a larger blindness that many people have to Davis County. For years, I would hear detailed traffic reports all the way to Provo whether or not anything was happening, but anything short of freeway closure in Davis County failed to register in the traffic reports (they’ve improved since then, by the way). People who work in Salt Lake City won’t bat an eye about living in Cedar Hills or Saratoga Springs (both areas of rapid housing development in the nearly inaccessible east and west sides respectively of the north end of Utah County), but won’t even consider places like Clinton and Syracuse that are much more accessible and much closer to Downtown SLC.

The blindness extends to public works policy makers. That is why the highway system and public transit both favor southbound traffic, and tend to ignore or actively prevent development of the lands to the north. This is manifest in two areas: the Legacy Highway and express bus routes.

The Legacy Highway is a planned north-south expressway that is supposed to run parallel to I-15 from Salt Lake City to Farmington and eventually to Ogden. This is critical because I-15 is the only major thoroughfare between Salt Lake and Ogden. If something happens to I-15, there are surface streets that could be taken, but none of them can come close to carrying the traffic load that I-15 carries. Northbound traffic from SLC would be effectively cut off. The Legacy route has been planned for some time, but development has been held back for two reasons, both environmental.

The first is that the route will pass through the marshes of the Great Salt Lake. This is undeniably true, and does present a real concern for the highway. In fact, during some wet periods (such as the early to mid eighties), the lake has expanded nearly to I-15 in some places, and parts of the Legacy route would certainly be in the lake. The Farmington Bay Bird Refuge is an important breeding ground for many bird species.

I reject this as a valid reason to block the Legacy Highway for two reasons. The first is that there is a lot of similar areas along the lake that could be used instead, such as in the Willard Bay area. The second is that the Legacy Highway would not likely significantly increase pollution in these wetland areas. Currently, all the traffic that would drive the Legacy Highway travels in I-15, just a few miles to the east. The prevailing winds along the route blow from the east, so any air pollution from traffic is already being blown into the wetland regions near where Legacy would run.

The second, and in many ways related argument against the Legacy Highway is that it will encourage urban sprawl. This relates to people building homes and business in the wetlands (which, due to lake level fluctuations would be a bad idea anyway), as well as to concerns about development swallowing up all the land everywhere. Urban sprawl, in the second sense, can be a huge issue in many places because there are no constraints to keep the development from continuing indefinitely. For example, Phoenix has spread to cover a huge area almost uniformly.

In Utah, there are natural constraints on urban sprawl. Population can only spread out so far to the west before they hit the lake, and so far to the east before it becomes infeasible to build on the mountains. In Davis County especially, this region is remarkably narrow. More to the point, development is already spreading farther and farther out to the east and to the west, whether or not the road infrastructure is in place. While there may be some truth to the “If you build it, they will come” argument, the reality is that whether or not we build new roads, people are coming to develop more and more in Davis County. Urban sprawl, in this sense, is happening anyway, so blocking the development of the Legacy highway does nothing to prevent it from happening. It just postpones the inevitable need to expand the roadways, leading to greater transportation crises later.

In terms of wetland development, it is possible to have a road passing through an area where development is not allowed. Already many roads pass through relatively sensitive areas, but the cars are confined to the road and nothing is built along them. The appropriate authorities can just zone the areas around the highway to make sure that a few critical services (gas stations) are available at appropriate intervals, and otherwise limit commercial and residential development along the route.

Ultimately, the battle against Legacy is a knee jerk reaction by environmentalists and meddling mayors (Rocky Anderson). The more I think about it, the more I think that Rocky is just trying (unsuccessfully) to discourage development in Davis County, so that more can be kept closer to Salt Lake City (even though Bountiful is only a few miles away from downtown). Anyway, I’d just like to say, “Mind your own city and stay out of our county’s business.”

Davis County also doesn’t have much in the way of public transit. This is probably because people don’t use it, which in turn is because there isn’t adequate public transit. It’s kind of circular that way. I’ve had some lengthy discussions about this with some people who have lived in places with great public transit systems, and who believe that the same thing can be done everywhere. The problem here is that they’re a long ways away from that in Davis County.

Right now, there are two kinds of routes in Davis County. The regular routes pass through some of the arterial and collector roads of the county, making regular stops along the way. To travel from most places in the county to downtown Salt Lake City takes well over an hour, with numerous stops along the way. This is hardly a satisfactory substitute for driving, even if it costs a little bit less.

There are also express routes that make a few stops at parking lots near freeway exits and otherwise take I-15 into downtown. These routes can get you into town in just a little bit longer than driving would take, but they cost twice as much to take. A regular monthly adult bus pass is $47, which is less than the monthly commuting costs for most people in Davis County, but an express pass is $95, which is more than what most people would spend, even now that gas prices have exploded.

So far, this seems fine. After all, they get to work in half the time, and the routes would primarily be used by business commuters, who can be expected to pay more than Joe Sixpack who wants to get to the library. The problem is one of north-south inequity. For Salt Lake Valley commuters who live the same distances away from downtown SLC as the Davis County commuters, they have their own express routes in the form of the light rail system TRAX. TRAX costs the same to ride as a regular bus route, and transfers can even be made between busses and TRAX for no charge.

So, people to the south have a convenient way of getting into town, which is faster and more direct than what is available to the people to the north. While it may or may not be cost effective to run a light rail line into Davis County, it is not cost effective to make things more difficult for express commuters. The express routes have less stopping and therefore less gas consumption spent accelerating (except for when they are caught in freeway gridlock, which is a different issue, tied to the Legacy Highway problems addressed earlier), and therefore should cost less to run than the regular routes.

Bearing in mind that all public transportation in this state is subsidized, we should ask what we should be subsidizing, and for how much. It makes little sense to subsidize business travelers on the relatively expensive TRAX system down to a regular bus fare, but to charge twice as much to the passengers on the operationally least expensive routes.

As long as they put these kinds of logistical and economic barriers in the way of the potential riders in Davis County and all lands north, there will be a dearth of actual riders, and public transit will continue to fail to accomplish anything useful in these areas. If there are cost effective routes into town that cost enough less than driving, then people will start using them. Once enough people are using them, then they can introduce collector routes that can bring people from the neighborhoods of Davis County to collection points (currently Park & Ride lots), and public transit can actually start making a difference in the area.

If that can happen, then maybe some of the load on I-15 can be reduced, and if Legacy can be built, then there may be enough options for travelers into town so that the region can grow comfortably. That way, we can build it as they come.