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My view: Utah's secret sauce is cooperation

By Ron Clegg

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah's secret sauce is collaboration and cooperation — the willingness of a wide variety of people, various government entities, non-profits, businesses and business associations to get together, work things out, compromise and together accomplish a great task.

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I'm in the business of building things — big things. In my professional life with a large international engineering firm, I've noticed that in Utah we build things better and faster than almost anywhere else in the country, or even the world.

There's a reason for this, and it's not because we're smarter or more talented than people in other states. Our advantage is pretty simple, but also difficult to replicate. Utah's secret sauce is collaboration and cooperation — the willingness of a wide variety of people, various government entities, non-profits, businesses and business associations to get together, work things out, compromise and together accomplish a great task.

This Utah character trait might be dismissed as simplistic or inconsequential, but it's really not. It is quite revolutionary, a definite competitive advantage not just in the infrastructure world, but in many areas of society. It is in stark contrast to the dysfunction and gridlock we see displayed in Washington within the federal government.

And it's noticeable. After Janet Kavinoky, executive director of Transportation & Infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber, paid a visit to Utah, she wrote a glowing account www.enotrans.org/eno-brief/utah-whats-the-secret-sauce of Utah's accomplishments. A couple of quotes:

" … collaboration — people getting together and working toward a common goal — seems to be a default way of doing business. When I asked why that was, the answer routinely was, 'It is part of our history: we are the Beehive State.' Whole books could be written on the Envision Utah public-private partnership to engage citizens in planning for Utah's future."

" … I think the secret sauce, the foundation of Utah Exceptionalism, is something I heard time and time again: a dedication to getting things done for the good of their community, their state and the future. More than once people said to me, 'We have to do these things so our kids have a great quality of life and a strong economic future.' In Washington, that would sound like a trite talking point. In Utah, it was genuine, and there were actions to accompany the words."

One item Kavinoky mentioned to illustrate Utahns' willingness to collaborate was the state's Unified Transportation Plan 2011-2040 (wfrc.org/cms/UnifiedPlan/3120%20Unified%20Plan_sample_small2.pdf). The plan was produced by all of Utah's Metropolitan Planning Organizations (representing cities and counties), plus the Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority.

In other states, various transportation agencies, planning agencies and local government entities spend more time fighting than cooperating. In my experience, and based on discussions with colleagues around the country, it is truly remarkable that a long-range, bottom-up statewide transportation plan has been developed with input and support from all entities. Each element of the Unified Plan has been the subject of in-depth studies and local public hearings, reflecting the priorities of local and state governments, incorporating both highways and public transit. Implementing the plan will ensure mobility and protect Utah's quality of life. Transportation infrastructure is a key ingredient for jobs and economic growth.

Kavinoky said the Unified Plan "blew my mind." It "brings together the plans and visions of the state and the metropolitan planning organizations, articulates a set of common, coordinated assumptions about growth and financing. … Perhaps there is another state in the nation that has done this, but I have not seen one yet."

The Unified Transportation Plan is a terrific symbol of Utah's collaborative nature. Executing the plan is, of course, the next step. And it will test our collective resolve and strength.

As Westerners, we pride ourselves in rugged individualism and independence. But Utah's heritage is cooperation and collaboration. The irony is, the more we work together to accomplish great things, to improve our economy, employment and protect our quality of life, the more independent and individualistic we can be.

Ron Clegg is the vice president and Utah area manager at Parsons Brinckerhoff.

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