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Who We Wish We Were … Versus Who We Really Are

An interesting debate took place at Wednesday’s Summit County Council Meeting. The topic discussed was whether to help Basin Rec fund a tunnel or bridge across Highway 224 near Sun Peak. On one side you had Basin Rec, the County’s new Transportation Planning Director, and Council Chairperson Kim Carson. They seemed to show vocal support for a bridge or tunnel that would enable both trail users and elementary school students to cross Highway 224. Caroline Ferris, the aforementioned Transportation Director, perhaps summed it up best when she stated that connecting trails and making it easier for people to use various modes of transportation, other than a car, represents what we want our county to be.

On the other side of the argument, stood council members Claudia McMullin, Roger Armstrong, and Dave Ure. Ms McMullin’s main argument appeared to be that Basin Rec is responsible for recreation and this tunnel seems to be more about getting kids to school (and not recreation). Mr Ure and Mr Armstrong seemed to be arguing a bigger point… would people even use a tunnel and why not just try to tweak the status quo to make it easier to use the existing stop light and cross walk. Mr. Ure provided historical context. He said that when he was in the Utah state legislature, Summit County pushed him to build the walking bridge over I-80 between the Spring Creek area and Kimball Junction. He said he finally agreed to get it done at a cost of about $3 million. He said that today about 12 people use that bridge each month. He feared the same thing would happen in this case.

When Mr Ure made that statement, my brain clicked. It really seems that we need to have a debate about who we are as a community versus who we want to be. By looking at local government actions, “who we want to be” appears to be a community where most citizens want to ride the bus as much as possible. If we are not riding the bus, we want to use our trails as a method of transport, via bike, e-bike, and walking to get our children to school, to do our grocery shopping, to get to work, and to get to recreation. We also want to pack our new housing and commercial development into tight spaces near current areas where population is concentrated in order to prevent using up all of our open space.

I say that must be “who we want to be” because we are investing so much time, effort, and money into those solutions.

Yet, who we are seems to be someone different:

  • We drive our kids to school. We wouldn’t generally consider having our kids walking or riding their bikes to school between November and April.
  • We don’t ride the bus. It takes too long and most people would have to drive to a park and ride to wait for and eventually catch a bus.
  • We drive our cars to work because we want (or need) the convenience of being able to come and go as we want, and the ability to do errands.
  • We drive our cars to recreate because we want to maximize the time we are on the trails and slopes.
  • We fight having commercial development in our backyards and don’t like the idea of packing homes (and condos) into our neighborhoods.

Granted, “who we are” is different for everyone. You may not agree with every item above but I would guess it rings true for a majority of the people in the Snyderville Basin.

The question is really whether our leaders’ vision of “who we want to be” is really WHO WE REALLY WANT TO BE … or is it just a utopian fantasy.

I don’t completely blame our government officials for coming up with ideas like bus transit centers and underground trail connections. It’s a great idea if people would actually use them. Just like Dave Ure’s walking bridge, it would have been a great way for people to get across I-80 safely. Unfortunately, if no one uses it, it’s just wasted time, money, and resources.

Of course, the counter argument is that if we don’t invest in enough infrastructure to support an idea, it will never work. For instance, if you don’t try and build a tunnel under 224 at Sun Peak, you’ll never know whether it would have been used by trail users and school children. If you don’t invest in good bus service, then you’ll never know whether people didn’t ride the bus because the service was bad or whether they just aren’t bus riders.

I believe we are at the point where we as a community need to decide who we really are. We need to decide whether we truly will ride buses. We need to decide whether we will bike to work. We need to decide whether our kids will walk to school. We as citizens truly need to answer the question that if our government builds these things, we will come.

But getting those answers can’t be found by using the methods we’ve pursued to date. We can’t start out with a solution in mind and try to push people towards it. We need to try and reach into the brains of people and understand their motivations. We need to ask questions that help people understand that we can spend money in a number of different ways. Money could be spent on trails. It could be spent on buses. It could be spent on transit stations. It could be spent on roundabouts. It could be spent on tweaks to the current systems. Or frankly it could be saved. Yet, we must communicate that if we spend it on a specific project, that money can’t be used elsewhere.

We need to further understand whether once that money is spent, will the person REALLY USE whatever has been provided — not whether they wish they were a person that would use it… but that they ARE the person that will use it.

There’s a great story about Portland and their rail system. Surveys found that a majority of people supported adding a rail system to reduce traffic congestion and gridlock. However, further studies delved deeper into the issue and found that most people supported rail because they thought it would rid the road of OTHER drivers, making the commute via car better for them. After 10 years, they had less than half the predicted rail ridership because the majority of people still drove their cars.

As we continue down this path, both our leaders and citizens need to work hard to distinguish hope from reality. It’s not a perfect science but we will all be better off if we can try to figure out if something is just a good idea or whether people will actually use it. We need to get a feel for whether the current vision of who we want to be is accurate. If so, we need to concentrate on finding a course that gets us from who we are now to that new state. If current ideas really don’t represent who we want to be, we need to take a hard look at reality and start charting some other courses.




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