Transportation: Utah’s Indispensable Linchpin

A Quick History Lesson from Thirty Years Ago:

In September 1987, Wasatch Front Regional Council released its “Salt Lake Area Long Range Transportation Plan.” The introductory statement of the 1987 Plan read:

“The Salt Lake Area has been and is projected to continue to be a rapidly growing urban area. From 1970 to 1985, population grew by 51 percent, and employment grew even faster by almost 64 percent. This rapid growth has led to traffic congestion on many of the area’s major streets. In order to support the growth in the area and reduce congestion, the transportation system will need to be significantly upgraded over the next 20 years.”

Written By Lew Cramer

Just slightly over three decades later, this analysis may make each of us feel like Bill Murray waking up on Groundhog Day!  These projections were amazingly accurate…and nonetheless, this time loop is one in which most states would be envious to travel. Our growth is the necessary conductor between a healthy economy and a balanced social environment, but it has come with strings attached. And these important strings remind us that civic priorities, economic planning and multiple resources must effectively align to harness the incredible power of rapid commercial expansion.

As commercial real estate leaders in our local communities, we have the responsibility and capacity to build businesses and positively shape the economic landscape of the state. We probably all appreciate and subscribe to the accuracy of the common maxim:  “Only two things in the commercial realm are inevitable: taxes and real estate.”  We have the privilege of daily changing, improving and shaping the very landscape of our state, and we need to ensure that we are doing so in the most positive ways to enhance Utah’s upward trajectory.

Another historical reminder from thirty years ago:  The national perception of the state has come a long way since 1987. Just to name a few dramatic changes– the 2002 Olympics, rise of Silicon Slopes, nationally ranked colleges, and a top-performing economy for the better part of the past decade have put Utah on national (and international) radar. All of these monumental accomplishments have indisputably shaped the state as we know it today.

2002 Olympics as seen from Downtown Salt Lake City

Now the unmistakable challenge that can’t be ignored: If we want to continue to experience financial prosperity and elevated quality of life through 2050 for us and our posterity, I reiterate the strong warning words of Wasatch Front Regional Council’s 1987 Plan, “In order to support growth, transportation will need to be significantly upgraded.”

Utah’s population will double by 2050. That results in more than twice the demand on roads and transit lines. Adding more populace to the state means more goods to be transported, extra workforce commuting to workplaces and enhanced movement within our local communities and neighborhoods.

Once again, the 1987 Plan accurately predicted a significant key in Utah’s future development. It read:

“The continued concentration of employment in Salt Lake City combined with the significant population growth projected for the suburban areas in south Salt Lake County and south Davis County will result in a requirement for additional north-south traffic capacity. However, the expected growth in employment in the suburban area will also create additional demands on the transportation system, which in the past has concentrated on serving commuter traffic to downtown Salt Lake City.”

Essentially, it was correctly predicted that Utah would become a burgeoning metropolis in which the growth of individual counties would create unique stresses on collective traffic flow along the entire Wasatch Front.

As suburban development continues to explode in key markets where available land exists, demand for proper transportation infrastructure will inevitably follow. Rapid growth with limited space has become an all-too-common theme. While travel strains continue to stretch across the Wasatch Front, there is significantly less room to widen roads or add transit services along the I-15/FrontRunner corridor (as well as major east-west connectors) that will serve Utahns for the next 30 years.

With the pressure of squeezing available space for a growing population, what do we do next?

Data Courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at The University of Utah

First of all, Utah has been the first state to produce—and actually implement—a serious unified Transportation Plan for the next 22 years until 2040. This collective effort involved incredible collaboration from numerous and varied sources, many of whom are traditional rivals competing for scarce resources but coming together in the “Utah Way” to seek the common good of our communities and state.  The result is a unified vision for the future that is workable and accessible. For reference, an outline of the plan is available at

Next, our voters, Governor and Legislature have generally viewed financial support for expanding transportation as not just being a tax burden, but also an investment in the future.

Our various state, regional and local transportation authorities have embraced the responsibility for ensuring that the three key prongs of successful transportation: smooth and rapid movement, safety, and economic development are given appropriate weight and consideration

Considerable visionary thinking from all sides is being actively sought, discussed and reviewed for those particularly critical areas, such as Point of the Mountain, the Northwest Corridor, the Inland Port, the Salt Lake airport expansion, etc.

Traffic on I-15 at Point of the Mountain

Potential paradigm-shifting technologies (including examining new options from around the world) are being regularly reviewed, evaluated and tested for their potential application in Utah, such as autonomous vehicles, drones, high-speed rail, rapid bus transit—even gondolas, perhaps.

New approaches to financing these improvements are possible, including public-private partnerships, international investors, etc.

In short, Utah’s smart approaches to preparing for the next thirty years depends on EACH of us participating, thinking, discussing, and in the words of Governor Herbert: “remember the 3 C’s—collaborating, cooperating and communicating together.”  This Utah approach is based on what an old Army general used to say:  “All of us together are smarter than any one of us alone.”

Together we will solve these challenges, and together Utah will enjoy an even better and brighter thirty years ahead of us when we all someday look back to 2018!

Lew Cramer is CEO of Coldwell Banker Commercial Advisors. This article appeared in the 2018 NAIOP Utah Commercial Real Estate Symposium magazine. DISCLAIMER: These views are the author’s personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Utah Transportation Commission or UDOT.