Maybe, like me, you picked up the phone sometime before the most recent election and heard a robot asking you questions about high-density housing. The ones I got asked me to press buttons to indicate whether I thought my city had enough of it, needed more, or would do better with less.
These were not frivolous questions during a municipal campaign season in a rapidly growing metropolitan area. Political careers hung in the balance.
Which brings me to the ironies of dealing with growth.
The Point of the Mountain Development Commission, created by the Legislature to recommend ways to handle the quarter-million or so people who will move into that “point” area in southern Salt Lake and northern Utah counties during the next 30 years, has come up with a great analysis of ways local governments can make it all orderly and attractive.
And almost every one of them might get you booted from office.
The commission unveiled five scenarios. On one end is the option to do absolutely nothing. That wouldn’t stop 218,500 people from moving in, but it would ensure they snarl traffic, increase pollution and make life more miserable than it is today.
On the other end is a plan with an $11.4 billion price tag. It includes new TRAX extensions, more east-west highways, more lanes on major north-south routes and more high-density housing.
That plan, the commission says, would lead even more people — 286,000 — to the area. But the jobs would be higher paying, the housing would be cheaper, the commute would be easier and the resulting tax benefits to the state would be higher.
It’s hard to argue with any of this. As I noted in a column earlier this year, land is disappearing along the Wasatch Front. Envision Utah says Salt Lake County has only about 40,000 acres of developable land left, and while the Point of the Mountain area includes parts of Utah County, its expected growth will take 20,000 acres.
And while I am a firm believer in the collective wisdom of the free market, local governments have a responsibility to look at the big picture, which means planning and directing that growth toward the best future possible.
But I keep coming back to those robot calls, and to Election Day. For example, Sandy’s longtime mayor was defeated by a political novice who said in campaign documents that the city was becoming “choked with high-density housing.”
I also come back to the 2015 election, where voters in both Salt Lake and Utah counties rejected a tax increase that would have funded more roads and mass transit.
Two of the commission’s scenarios call for free mass transit, systemwide. But, of course, nothing is truly free.
And the scenarios that promise to attract more high-paying jobs come with their own little ironies. People who earn good salaries tend to want single-family homes. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom of the past. Millennials are challenging those assumptions, but there is evidence that they, too, want a house and a yard as they become more established in their careers.
To be honest, few things are more challenging than trying to plan communities for a future that is hard to predict. What sort of life will the children of millennials prefer? How would self-driving cars change transportation needs? Will technology make working from home more common?
Given trends in Utah, it’s a fairly safe bet that more people are coming and that many of them will come because of high-tech jobs in and around the Point of the Mountain, or “Silicon Slopes,” as it’s often called. When they come, it would be great to have good and plentiful roads to drive on and affordable homes to live in.
But if you were a mayor or city council member, would you vote to approve a lot more high-density housing? Would you vote to raise taxes for more roads and trains? If you were a state lawmaker, would you raise taxes enough to make all transit free? What would be the unintended consequences of that? Could you explain it to voters?
The answers to these questions could determine the kind of place your grandchildren inhabit.