SALT LAKE CITY — If you really want to know how an area is addressing its biggest problem, the best approach should be to observe that situation from both sides.
That’s exactly what the 40 attendees on the annual Regional Leaders Trip did Monday in Utah.
The group had traveled from Colorado Springs to check out what Salt Lake City and its surrounding area have done to create a strong, stable and growing economy. But sometimes that doesn’t mean simply talking to government officials or visiting successful businesses.
In this case, the process also was about seeing how Utah’s version of our Front Range, known as the Wasatch Front, has dealt with one of its most ominous issues — transportation.
More than 2 million people, or 80 percent of Utah’s population, live along a thin 90-mile strip from Ogden to Provo. But the area’s leaders saw projections of another 2.5 million people cramming into the same limited space over the next 30 years, and they realized something had to be done.
For the visitors from Colorado Springs, part of the first day in Utah included a bus ride about a half-hour south of Salt Lake City to the suburb of Lehi and a tour of the impressive green-conscious operations of high-tech, California-based giant Adobe, which has about 1,000 workers at this location. That ride went down Interstate 15, which was busy in midday and obviously a daily clogged mess at rush hour.
Next the Springs contingent went to the Utah Transit Authority, which operates various kinds of mass transit (trains, light rail, buses and even a trolley route) along the Wasatch Front. This became a show-and-tell tour, with our group taking the FrontRunner train from Salt Lake City up to Ogden and back.
To call it an eye-opener would be an understatement. We breezed along in that train at speeds up to 79 mph, often while seeing much-slower traffic on I-15 nearby. We sat in comfortable seats, the ride was quiet and the wireless Internet service was fine. Throughout the cars, workers sat with laptops — many actually still doing work (it’s a commonly allowed practice for employees to do their first and last hours of the workday on the train).
Alongside various stops along the route, we saw modern affordable housing and large commercial developments that have sprung up around the train stations.
Does it make a difference? Put it this way: Steve Meyer, a UTA executive, said many companies considering a relocation to Utah actually have called the authority with questions about future transit plans, which were considered just as important as infrastructure and other government-related issues.
The key point, and a lesson for Coloradans to learn, is that mass transit in Utah no longer is seen as part of social services to help “the poor people,” as Salt Lake City Chamber Vice President Justin Jones put it.
“Instead,” Jones added, “it’s a way for people to get around the community and get to work.”
Of course, many in the Springs group saw and heard all that, and we couldn’t help but feel a bit sheepish. Colorado Springs has been far slower than other growing Western cities in accepting the need for mass transit, local and regional.
In more than a few ways, our circumstances are comparable. Most of Colorado’s population lives along the Front Range strip from Fort Collins to Pueblo, with projections for millions more in the next few decades. Yet, like Utah, we still only have one north-south connector, in our case Interstate 25.
Denver is tackling its transit and traffic problems. Today, Denver has more than $4 billion in mass-transit projects in the works or being built. Colorado Springs has zero.
We can’t use conservative politics as an excuse, either. Utah prides itself on being ultra-conservative, yet its state Legislature has passed bills helping the Utah Transit Authority toward reaching its aggressive goals, and 74 percent of voters approved a tax increase to provide funding.
What can we do? It could start with a thorough study to show how bad the I-25 congestion problem will be someday if nothing is done while population explodes. We could demonstrate that by taking action, creating our own plans for mass transit, eventually connecting with Denver’s system, we could make our own city far more appealing to outside companies.
The same could go for young adults who might work in Denver but ride the train from the Springs every day — because they could live closer to the mountains and more outdoor recreation.
Just ask the folks here in Utah, and they’ll tell you one of their prime motivations has been wanting to leave their area better for generations to come.
Why couldn’t Colorado Springs do the same?