World Class Cities, World Class Transit: Lessons from Salt Lake City

This article by Jeff Kutash, Executive Director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of its quarterly newsletter.

Last month I joined 24 other members of the greater Omaha metro community on a “field trip” to Salt Lake City organized by the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA). Among other things, MAPA is responsible for developing a regional transportation strategy for our area, and they thought there was a lot we could learn about transportation, mass transit, and economic development from Salt Lake City. So we, along with the Iowa West Foundation, sponsored a trip. Our group, pictured above, included area mayors and representatives from planning and public works departments, the development community, engineering/architecture firms, philanthropy, local chambers of commerce, and our transit agencies. And what I learned was absolutely incredible…

Salt Lake City is a lot like Omaha.

They have 1.1M people in their metro, we have nearly a million. They are fiscally conservative. We are fiscally conservative. They want low taxes, we want low taxes. They have invested billions of dollars in transportation and transit. We have invested billions of…no wait…we have not done that. Hold that thought.

Don’t waste a crisis.

The Salt Lake City story starts in 2003 when their region was in an economic crisis. They were losing companies, they were shedding jobs, and worst of all, they were losing their children, who were moving away for better opportunities and not coming back. Recognizing that their children had become “their most valuable export,” they had a sense of urgency. They knew they had to do something. We now have a projected $1B gap in our state budget – that should create plenty of urgency! Our region should also feel additional urgency because we are running out of developable land and the ability to grow our tax base through annexation.

You can’t cut your way to greatness, you have to invest your way to greatness.

It would have been very easy for their elected officials to focus on cutting budgets – which they did do. However, they spent much more time and energy focused on making investments. They believed that they had to grow their way out of the crisis, and that the key was to make major improvements in education and transportation, with a particular focus on mass transit.

Transit benefits people, quality of life, the environment, and the economy.

More transit means less parking which means more land available for development (commercial, education, healthcare, retail, and entertainment) which means greater tax productivity. More transit means shorter transaction times and greater economic and innovative efficiency. More transit means less congestion on the roads, shorter commutes, and better air quality (in other words – transit benefits you even if you don’t use it!). More transit means more active, healthier lifestyles. And more transit means more disposable income for those who choose not to own a car and more equity for people who need to get to work but who can’t afford a car.

You need strong leadership, bold goals, and a unified vision for transportation.

Salt Lake City made the determination that they had to simultaneously improve roads for drivers, better manage transport of goods, develop high quality mass transit options (commuter rail, light rail, streetcar, BRT-bus rapid transit), and make the area much more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. And they decided that if they just focused on doing one project at a time, that they would waste time, waste money, and continue to fall further behind other cities. So their elected officials, transit agencies, chamber of commerce, business community, and philanthropists at the state and local level got together and developed a unified transportation plan, the first of its kind in the country, and set a goal of full implementation by 2030. We have a good start on this with recent efforts such as complete streets, Dodge-street BRT, and a potential urban circulator in downtown. However, we are still a long way from full implementation of these ideas, and they are still being addressed too much as individual projects instead of as part of a larger, more systemic solution.

Transit is a public good and should be supported by the public.

In 2006, with the full support of the state, regional leaders, the chamber of commerce, and local business leaders, Salt Lake City took a proposed sales tax increase to voters. Despite the region’s strong fiscal conservatism, the sales tax passed 70 to 30. That is not a misprint. Seventy to thirty! An additional subsequent sales tax increase passed as well to move up the completion date for all projects by 15 years. That funding was leveraged to float bonds and to receive significant state and federal grants. While nobody in Salt Lake City could give us an exact number, I added up $11B in transportation investments at a minimum. Philanthropy accounted for a paltry $75,000 of that, most of which went to fund media campaigns and strategies for the sales tax proposition. At the end of the day, the business community and the populace recognized the importance of investing in transit was, and voted overwhelmingly to pay for it.

The payoff is huge.

Since 2006, Salt Lake City has undergone an economic renaissance. In 2016, Salt Lake City was the fourth fastest growing city in the US and Utah was just named the best state for doing business by Forbes. Billions of dollars of residential and commercial development are bursting out of the ground along all of their transit corridors, their tech and start-up sector is booming, and their population base is projected to double by 2035.

There is nothing preventing us from doing this in Omaha if we have the courage, the vision, and the leadership to push forward.

Investing in transit, in transportation, and in transit oriented development will help Omaha remain competitive, attract and retain millennials, lure new business, grow our population and tax base, create a more equitable city, and inspire our own children to stay right here for exciting opportunities and to start their own families.