SALT LAKE CITY — Utah could see I-15 turn into a double-decker freeway unless there's better planning by government officials for the state's rapid growth, participants at a Utah Transit Authority workshop were told Wednesday.
"This becomes political," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who called on state and local officials and business leaders attending the UTA Transit Academy to support increased high-density housing to make mass transit more cost-effective.
Otherwise, Niederhauser said, Utahns will face "the question of whether we're going to double-deck I-15. I mean, if we don't deal with that, that's the kind of ideas we have to face or unbelievable gridlock — complete gridlock on our roads."
The Senate leader said government already faces a shortfall in tax revenues to accommodate growth.
"I can tell you right now the tax infrastructure and revenue that we have today is not sufficient to meet the demands of our growth. It just is not there," Niederhauser said, calling for "some smart increases incrementally" rather than a big tax hike.
He said planning now for the predicted doubling of the state's population by 2050 can save money. But Niederhauser said that may require the state to take over planning functions now left to local governments.
Other members of the panel discussion on transit and transportation also brought up the specter of a two-tiered freeway along the Wasatch Front.
"The way it's coming right now, are we going to double-deck I-15? I'm thinking, 'Whoa. Would that send out some screams.' But that's the reality, that's the reality of what's coming," Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, said.
Buxton, a member of the Legislature's new Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force, also said urban sprawl can't be allowed to continue and that may mean new state laws spelling out how land can be used.
"I think there is going to have to be some kind of a group put together to look at an overall master plan of how we're going to end with growth, where the roads are going to be. We're going to have to have a little stiffer rules," he said.
Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras said there needs to be better coordination with public transit because there's only so much road expansion possible.
"We're not going to double the lane miles, I'm here to tell you. Unless you tell me," Braceras said, turning to the legislative leaders on the panel. Niederhauser answered, "Triple-decking!"
The UDOT boss said no one living on either side of I-15 would want a view of a double-decker freeway. "I don't think we want to," Braceras said, asking local leaders to include transportation officials in their planning.
After the panel, Niederhauser said his comments about stacking I-15 were "tongue-in-cheek. But it is a reality because the cost of right of way is so expensive, our only option, especially for I-15, is up. People don't like that. And I don't like that."
During the discussion, panelists also talked about the controversy surrounding UTA.
The agency recently signed a nonprosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office and has agreed to cooperate with the ongoing federal investigation into transit projects and submit to up to three years of federal monitoring.
Niederhauser said lawmakers and the public may not be aware of the reforms made by UTA following state audits that cited a number of concerns, including with transit deals and executive compensation.
"If you're doing well, we're not congratulating you or recognizing you because there are other problems we're dealing with," the Senate leader said. He said boards like UTA's need to be more than a "rubber stamp" for agency executives.
Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper and co-chairman of the transportation task force, said he believes the UTA board and administration are working to regain the public trust and he hopes to see that happen.
"There's some issues from the past that keep getting regurgitated, some fair and some probably not so fair," Schultz said, describing himself as "pretty impressed" with the efforts underway.
Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City and a former UTA board member, said, "Perception is reality and that's what we have with UTA. It's what people think about you, maybe not the reality."
Mayne said after the panel the state should have more control over UTA. What form that takes, she said, will be up to the Legislature. The task force is expected to make a recommendation about whether UTA should become a state agency.
"I think we have not done what we needed to do and maybe they need to be harnessed in," Mayne said. She said the required federal monitoring suggests state government "should have had more oversight."