What Legacy Will We Pass On To Future Generations?

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  • June 17, 2001


What will be the legacy we pass on to future generations of Wasatch Front residents? What will be the legacy of the Legacy Parkway? Its name invites the question. The term “legacy” means “something willed or handed down from one generation to another.” Previous generations have bequeathed to us a community along the Wasatch Front that embraced sound community planning and which implemented efficient mass transit systems. We now have reached a cross-roads in history when we must make difficult decisions. We have grown and prospered and must make a transportation decision that will affect generations to come. Do we embrace mass transportation now or build a freeway in a location and in a manner that will adversely impact the ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake and limit, if not foreclose, mass transit options in the future?

The Legacy We Inherited

To better weigh the choice before us, we can reflect on the legacy we inherited. Shortly after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, pioneer leader Brigham Young and his associates made a number of land use and urban planning decisions, remarkable for the time, dramatically shaped the quality of life in the Salt Lake Valley and beyond. Linda Sillitoe, local historian and author of the Welcoming the World: The History of Salt Lake County, published by Salt Lake County, reminds us of the visionary planning mandated by Brigham Young:

  • The new city was laid out and surveyed in straight, ten-acre blocks with eight lots per block.
  • Early land use planing included plats which depicted the careful layout of buildings, roads, and ditches.
  • Twenty-foot wide sidewalks would skirt the side of each street in the center of town.
  • Homes and other buildings would be set back twenty feet from the sidewalk.
  • Streets measured eight rods (132 feet) wide, ran at right angles and were oriented with the cardinal directions.
  • Speeding ordinances were enacted (within the forts or their lanes, no person could ride faster than a slow trot under a penalty of $1.00 for each offense).
  • Residents were encouraged to beautify their streets by planting linden and poplar trees.
  • Outside the city center, five-acre, ten-acre and twenty-acre plots of open-space were preserved for those who wanted to farm; the smallest plots being nearest the city center.
  • By the 1850s, the community boasted a civic theater, orchestra, brass band, and Tabernacle Choir.

A visitor from Pittsburgh wrote in 1849, “I shall never forget the first sight of this valley. It shall remain on my mind as the most beautiful spectacle I ever behold. . . . Their city occupies more ground than Pittsburgh, but each man has a large piece of ground around his dwelling. The bridges are all good, the streets wide, and the fences very regular.” One journalist from the east visited the Salt Lake valley in 1851 and described what he saw as “a large garden laid out in regular squares.” Linda Sillitoe also characterized the early development of the area as “[a] thriving city, a county with expanding settlements, and multiplying social, intellectual, and cultural opportunities all boasted the value of planning and cooperation.” Similarly, historians Thomas Alexandar and James Allen observed that the city fathers “paid careful attention to planning and beautification, and their wide streets, with irrigation ditches running down either wise, because a standard item for commentary from travelers.”

To continue to prosper, the region needed a strong transportation system. A rich tradition of rail transportation followed. The first trolley cars, drawn by mules and horses, appeared in Salt Lake City in 1872. By 1889, the Salt Lake City Street Railway Company had twenty-one mule and horse-drawn trolleys covering approximately 14 miles of track. Utah’s population doubled from 1890 (210,779) to 1920 (449,396), with most of the population in urban areas along the Wasatch Front and nearby farming communities. To accommodate the transportation needs of this growing population, electric streetcars replaced mule-drawn trolleys. Two companies (Salt Lake City Railroad Company and Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company) acquired extensive rights of way and constructed a system of electric “interurban” rail lines (a larger, heavier version of the common electric trolley) and electric streetcar (trolley) lines. Electrification of Salt Lake’s streetcar system occurred just one year after the first electric streetcar system operation in Richmond, Virginia. By 1910, an electric rail extended north from Salt Lake City to Ogden; and by 1916, south from Salt Lake City to Payson. In his writings, Wallace Stegner vividly described throngs of people riding the streetcar to swim and dance at Saltair along the shore of Great Salt Lake. By 1918, Salt Lake City had almost 150 miles of streetcar track. At that time, approximately half of all adults living in Salt Lake City rode the streetcars on a daily basis. Logan, Provo and Ogden also had smaller scale streetcar systems. Rail was considered by many as the preferred mode of regional transportation due to the fact that it was convenient, fast and inexpensive. Rail added to the regional economic prosperity and allowed for the annexation of numerous suburbs as the streetcar system expanded.

By the late 1920s, as asphalt replaced dirt roads to better accommodate automobile traffic, Salt Lake City was the first city in the world to outfit trolley buses with pneumatic rubber tires to be used without a track. Delegations from twenty-six states and thirteen countries came to Salt Lake City to study the highly innovative design and operation of Salt Lake’s trolley system. Slowly, the automobile displaced rail and trolley service until 1941 with the decommissioning of the last streetcar in Salt Lake City. Nevertheless, mass transportation played a significant role in economic growth and vitality for a period of over fifty years at a critical time in Utah’s history because the automobile could not satisfy all transportation needs.

The early urban planning efforts described above enhanced urbanization and large- scale downtown development. The wide streets allowed for four lanes of traffic while preserving many original structures and the best features of the original Town layout. Development of an extensive, innovative rail transportation system greatly contributed to the robust and orderly, economic development and quality of life along the Wasatch Front.

In the latter half of the 20th century, diverse and vibrant economic prosperity continued, along with a dynamic arts community, advanced health care, relatively low crime, strong educational institutions, and TRAX — a light rail judged to be a resounding success. Based on these and other factors, the most recent edition of Places Rated Almanac rated the Salt Lake-Ogden metropolitan area as the most desirable place to live after statistically evaluating 354 metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada.

The tradition of a high quality of life continues to this day along the Wasatch Front. Yet, that high quality of life is threatened by the growth and urban sprawl that has coincided with our prosperity. We must have the same vision regarding urban and transportation planning that past generations along the Wasatch Front had in order to preserve our legacy for future generations. Visionary urban planning and transportation planning may require us to develop new ways of thinking and the way we interact with the natural environment. The legacy we inherited will be the standard by which we will be judged.

The Legacy We Could and Should Pass On to Future Generations

In his article published in 1959, “The Changing Face of Salt Lake City,” the late Utah historian Dale L. Morgan wrote that “we may hope that Salt Lake City will not lose itself in growth, that as it has preserved its unique identity through its eras as village, town and city, it will not lose that identity in its transformation into a metropolis.” Today, we have not completely evolved into a metropolis — one can still drive up the North Corridor to Brigham City and see farms and orchards. Fruit stands still sell peaches grown 50 yards away. According to the FEIS, the current rural setting, still evident in the North Corridor, will soon be a memory due to the annual conversion of approximate 700 acres of farmland to urban development. FEIS, Vol. I, p. 4-5. By the year 2020, the FEIS predicts that open space in the North Corridor will experience “full buildout by 2020.” Id. p. 4-12. Thus, the Wasatch Front will be a full-fledged metropolis within a short 20 years.

Large numbers of individuals and families moving to the area will continue for the foreseeable future. The birth rate in Utah generally and the Wasatch Front in particular will likely remain above the national average. Many born here will wish to stay. Others will continue to be attracted by the strong economy, the unparalleled recreational opportunities within close proximity, and the unique character of the community. The FEIS predicts a 60% increase in population along the Wasatch Front and the counties within the North Corridor. FEIS, Vol. I, p. 1-27. Population growth north of the North Corridor in Weber County is expected to increase by approximately 63% by 2020.

While some growth in population along the Wasatch Front is inevitable, collectively we can determine the nature and quality of the growth. We can create a true legacy for future generations which meets our transportation demands by the year 2020 and maintains our quality of life. This is the vision for the year 2021 of what might be:

  • A father drives his daughter to the Farmington rail station after Sunday dinner for her return to BYU. He is grateful that she does not have to drive back to the dorms in the snow storm.
  • A graduate student in commuter science from North Ogden commutes every day by rail to the University of Utah. He has just accepted a job at an upstart software company in Orem. After graduation he plans to continue to live in North Ogden and to commute by rail to Orem. His commute will take less time than that of his colleagues who have accepted jobs in Silicon Valley.
  • A young architect living in Ogden commutes on the train to her office in Salt Lake City every day. She enjoys the 10 minute walk to the station from her condominium. She drives to the park-and-ride if the weather is bad. While the commute by car would take around 40 minutes in rush-hour traffic, about the same time as her commute by rail, she enjoys the quiet time reading rather than fighting traffic.
  • As a reward for getting good grades, a single mother on a limited income with no vehicle allows her son to invite a friend to attend a Buzz game. They take the express bus from their neighborhood in Kaysville.
  • A Bountiful family has made it a tradition to ride the light rail to the New Assembly Hall to attend the Sunday morning session of October Conference.
  • A seventy-eight year old widow living in Salt Lake has recently given up driving. She was delighted to find how easy and convenient it was to catch the commuter rail to Layton so that she could continue her weekly visits to see her brother.

The Legacy UDOT Plans to Pass On to Future Generations

Regrettably, the legacy UDOT would leave future generations fails to consider mass transportation as a viable alternative to new highway construction. Indeed, UDOT even goes so far as to fail to consider how mass transit could be concurrently designed and constructed with the Legacy Project. Nor does UDOT p ropose a highway that would be designed so that it could be fully integrated into a future mass transit system. UDOT refuses to consider land use changes — even those driven by market forces promoted by mass transit — as a means of reducing vehicle miles traveled. The ignominious legacy which UDOT offers future generations in the year 2021 can be characterized as follows:

  • Congestion on I-15 and the Legacy Parkway is as bad or worse than it was in 1999 before the widening of I-15 based on UDOT’s own projections.
  • Mass transit may not be in place by 2021 in the North Corridor because the Legacy Parkway succeeded in temporarily delaying congestion and, thus, eliminating the perceived need for a mass transit system until perhaps 2010. By the time a mass transit system is seriously considered, existing right-of- ways have been encroached and open space consumed. Mass transit options are too expensive or simply infeasible, due in part to the Parkway’s promotion of land uses hostile to mass transit.
  • If a mass transit system is constructed by 2021, it will not maximize ridership because UDOT failed to sufficiently integrate the existing highway system into the transit system. Interchanges are not conveniently located near park-and-rides, parking is inadequate to meet the demand and arterial roads with feeder bus lines do not interface well with either the highway or the rail system.
  • Congestion in Davis and Weber County is horrific. Extension of the Legacy Parkway and widening of I-15 exacerbate congestion caused by automobile dependency with no viable linkage to mass transit.
  • Full buildout through the North Corridor has occurred, consuming the last vestiges of farmland and rural life in Davis and Weber County, yet without a viable mass transit system to reduce automobile dependent development in those locations or to the north. As a consequence, urban sprawl extends into Cache and Box Elder County and into Idaho.
  • Salt Lake City suffers from oppressive congestion, strained infrastructure, l oss of jobs resulting in loss of tax base and exorbitantly expensive day parking. The familiar pattern of urban flight occurs as public schools decline, crime increases, infrastructure crumbles, and historic sites are vandalized or left to decay.
  • Conformity with the State Implementation Plan and National Ambient Air Quality Standards cannot be maintained and EPA forces the Utah Division of Air Quality to impose draconian air emissions controls as a non-attainment area. Such controls further stunt economic growth. Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming become attractive loci for businesses relocating away from the now congested Wasatch Front. Industry and business blame former state transportation policies, “voodoo” travel demand and conformity models and faulty projections as the cause of the increase in emissions from mobile sources.
  • Students of urban planning and mass transportation attend lectures in which the 2000 Legacy Parkway FEIS is used as a case study of lost opportunity and poor urban and transportation policy and planning at a critical moment in history.

The Decisions We Make Now Will Affect The Quality of Life for Many Generations To Come

Building the Legacy Parkway (or worse, the Legacy Parkway from Brigham City to Lehi) will significantly increase congestion, air emissions from mobile sources and urban sprawl. Building a regional mass transit system (or at least a commuter rail and/or light rail in the North Corridor) will provide commuters with transportation options, help relieve congestion and promote less auto-dependent development. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to implement an aggressive “Transit 1st” policy and, instead, morph into another Phoenix and Los Angeles-like monument to the automobile, asphalt and sprawl.

“Our generation, more than any other, has the ability to irretrievably change the land. Financial rewards provide tremendous pressure to unleash our technology to reinvent our surroundings. There will be growth; change will come. But failure to care for the land on which we live means turning our backs on a heritage laid down carefully and at such great cost by our forefathers – and will leave us immeasurably poorer.” *

* Steven E. Snow, “Skipping the Grand Canyon,” New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community (ed. Terry Tempest Williams, William B. Smart, Gibbs M. Smith eds. 1998).

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