Is Utah prepared for the future? A new report by the Utah Foundation, a nonprofit non-partisan public policy research group, predicts that Utah’s population will skyrocket 2.5 million additional people by the year 2050, and we may have no way to handle the growth.
Utah’s current estimated population of 2,902,115 (nearly 200,000 higher than the 2010 census numbers) is already feeling some of the burdens of a rapidly expanding population, thanks in no small part to the state’s famous propensity for larger families than most other states. According to the new report, that figure could climb as high as 5,400,000 in the next 36 years, leaving the state to come up with solutions to growing problems of housing, transportation, and energy.
By 2037, it is expected that the fastest growing segment of Utah residents will be those 60 and older, those who today are in their 20s and 30s, leaving the Beehive state with a much older and more diverse population than we see today. And that aging population is going to leave single family homes at a premium.
Traditionally, home ownership has been the norm in Utah. In 2000, 71.5 percent of houses were owner-occupied. Starting in 2009, with the Great Recession in full force, the number of owner-occupied homes began to drop (69.9 percent in 2012) while renter occupied housing units showed an increase. The study found that Utah’s vacancy rate is 5.9 percent, which is lower than the national average of 7.4 percent—although Salt Lake County specifically is sitting at an impressive 3.9 percent.
However, the younger generation, who will make up the majority of the future population, aren’t purchasing homes as soon as their parents and grandparents did, as they face a major roadblock not seen by previous generations: student debt. Across the country, college tuition and student loan rates have been skyrocketing as colleges and universities have faced decreasing funding from states—placing a heavier and heavier burden directly on students. The average undergraduate student debt in Utah is over $20,000, more than double what it was for undergrads just a decade ago.
This puts the younger generation at a competitive disadvantage to home buying. While the older generation is increasingly able to purchase homes closer to the city or access to public transportation (such as it is, in Utah), younger home buyers are forced to delay any attempts at a purchase for years while they try to pay off their educational debt.
Possible energy challenges include Utahns’ access to new technologies in renewable energy resources. Current projections show that Utah will experience a rise in utility usage—a 15 percent increase in gigawatt hours from 2013 to 2022 for electricity and a 19 percent increase in natural gas. But despite the rising costs of relying on fossil fuels for heat and electricity, Utah has remained seemingly resistant to mass-implementation of cheaper renewable energy. Rocky Mountain Power recently tried to discourage solar panels by adding a new fee to homes that used them. And, reportedly, some Utah lawmakers recently bragged at an ALEC conference about slowing down solar energy in the state.
A recent study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy suggests that the implementation of more energy efficient policies could save Utah ratepayers an estimated $100 million on their utility bills, while also meeting the proposed EPA carbon reduction targets. These policies could include implementing an energy efficiency savings target, enacting national model building codes, constructing combined heat and power systems, and adopting efficiency standards for products and equipment.
The Utah Foundation report is also critical about the Utah Legislature, which they say has been far too slow to addressing even current transportation needs, much less the expected massive growth of the population.
Utah’s roads are already in desperate need of improvements. According to the 2013 Report from the Wasatch Front Regional council, a full 25 percent of the state’s major roads are in either poor or mediocre condition, and one out of every 20 bridges are “structurally deficient.”
Add an additional 2.5 million people driving around every day, and the risk of disaster isn’t hard to imagine. Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan 2011-2040, the guiding document for long-range planning in the state, says that to keep all roads and bridges safe to drive on over the next 25 years will cost $54.7 billion. However, we only know where $43.4 billion of that money is going to come from, leaving a shortfall of $11.3 billion dollars over the next 25 years.
Public transit is also going to be critical moving forward, with a desperate need for additional bus routes and expanded service hours, new rail lines, park and ride hubs, and transit-only interstate ramps. Transit development is also expected to continue going forward. Planned projects between 2011 and 2040 include 41 projects from enhanced buses to expansion of the commuter rail system and eighteen facilities, including park and rides, transit hubs, and transit-only interstate ramps.
But is UTA up to the task? That remains questionable as several recent audits of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) have shown the agency to be woefully overestimating their capabilities, while underestimating their costs. Not to mention vastly overpaid executives, and a suspicious rule-change to their conflict of interest policy which was approved in part by state Rep. Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper), who sits on UTA’s board.
“Twenty-five years is quite a horizon for planning,” the Utah Foundation report concludes, “especially when trying to forecast potential changes to technology or policies. Changing regulatory structures and public sentiment will also have impacts on how the transportation and utility networks grow and change in the future. Public and private service providers and policy makers will need to adapt to new situations to ensure that future Utahns have the necessary access to housing, transportation and energy.”