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Wheels on the bus…

By Val Hale And Donna Milakovic - | Feb 20, 2014

Val: Ever since the announcement of the Provo City Temple a couple of years ago, Provo City has enjoyed more positive momentum than any other city in the state. After the exciting temple news came the Nu Skin Innovation Center, flights out of Provo to Mesa and Los Angeles and Oakland, the Convention Center, FrontRunner and then the “epic” announcement about Google Fiber. It seemed as if Provo could do no wrong.

Unfortunately, that momentum may well have come to a screeching halt Tuesday night when the Provo City Council voted 4-3 to oppose the proposed route for the $150 million Bus Rapid Transit system that would be the critical missing piece of the puzzle to FrontRunner and mass transit in the Provo-Orem metropolitan area. What would seem to be a no-brainer for a city and county concerned about growth, traffic, parking and air quality could not survive the “not-in-our-neighborhood” lobbying efforts of Provo’s tree streets.

It didn’t matter that the experts who do this for a living, in addition to Mayor John Curtis, had designated the preferred route as being along 900 East from 800 North to the Missionary Training Center. A vocal, well-organized group of neighbors east of 900 East didn’t want it and pressured a majority of city council members to vote against that route.

Unfortunately, a vote against that route may well be the death knell for the project. Other mayors in the county who have committed millions to the project have stated they will withdraw their support if Provo does not move ahead with the preferred route. No one knows what another critical partner, the Federal Government, will do once the project is derailed. It is not an understatement to say the future of the entire project is in doubt.

It was shortly before I moved to Orem as a young boy that Provo’s city leaders made a colossal — even fatal — economic mistake by refusing the Woodbury’ family’s request to build a mall in Provo. My guess is they were pressured to oppose the mall by existing downtown businesses. The result was the University Mall being built in Orem and the county’s retail center shifting dramatically to Orem. Provo has been struggling for 40 years to recover from that lack of vision on the part of its city leaders. To say the decision was shortsighted would be an understatement argued by few Provo residents.

With apologies to my friends on the Council who voted against the recommended route (and subsequently put BRT in jeopardy), my opinion is this decision by the current Provo City Council ranks right alongside the mall decision. Time will tell if the BRT project survives all the politics, moves ahead and ends up meeting the critical need for mass transit in the Provo-Orem area. If it does, then we may all end up living happily ever after, and Council members can say, “We told you so.”

On the other hand, if the project collapses and the $150 million goes up in smoke (or, better stated, goes to other projects somewhere else), people across the state and country will be scratching their heads about why a supposedly on-the-rise, progressive community like Provo would put in jeopardy something as badly needed and coveted as BRT, especially when the funding was in place without having to add a heavy tax to local residents.

To complicate matters further, this decision could end up hurting not just Provo but also Orem and every other community in Utah Valley. BRT is a critical component of the county’s clean air initiative. It is a key element of solving our future traffic and parking issues. It is an economic development magnet. To think of Provo moving forward without BRT when they had it in their hand for the taking is mindboggling.

Let’s all hope everyone can come together and still make this happen. If not, it will be a significant loss for Utah Valley.

Donna: Someone asked me if I would be taking an opposing view to Val on this topic of the Provo City Council vote on the resolution on Bus Rapid Transit, and I have to say it didn’t even occur to me to disagree except in the magnitude of their folly. For the council to disregard all other considerations of the 15 years of environmental studies that have gone into the selection of Route 4 as the “best performing” least negative impact route for both cities involved and just throw their proverbial arms around the disgruntled residents in a small neighborhood to the detriment of the rest of the city is simply absurd politics at play.

While the residents of the neighborhood on 900 East may not be aware of the difficulty in rerouting the 15-year, $150 million project, the city council members are responsible to know the repercussions of their decisions. It is not like Provo City can simply offer an alternative route that has less impact. It is not even that the neighborhood is unified. They have not protested a route that includes busses running on the West side of 900 East.

They clearly stated that they did not want the busses on the East side of the street nearest the entrance of their neighborhood. Perhaps they did not consider the Title 6 requirements federal regulations for UTA to study the impact of all routes with careful consideration of all church properties and ensure that no favoritism is shown to higher income neighborhoods over lower income areas. There is a reason that 10 different variations of this project were studied over 15 years. It is no simple task to up and change the process over one small group of angry people who want to take out a crystal ball and say, “This will ruin the neighborhood.” They have no data, no studies, no material proof that bus rapid transit will be harmful to their quality of life. In essence the protesters have said we don’t want this in our backyard.

The fact that three of the four “no” votes came from freshman council members is significant. It is also important to note that these naysayers have also failed to provide any substantiating evidence of a less expensive more efficient route that serves all the residents of Provo without prejudice. Instead they have in essence stated that they will shun the experts and the data to follow the demands of the loudest and most emotional people in the room. What has happened to the reasoned decision-makers who consider the good of the whole over the cries of the few, the loud and the wealthy?

If you yet doubt the impact of this resolution by the council, simply consider the time and effect of studying a new route that goes through a different neighborhood. Won’t those residents have the same right to be heard? This possibly perpetual delay of the project will surely cost the funding that has been secured for the project and jeopardize the public transit in Provo’s future.

Not only has the council postponed progress, but they have set a precedent of listening to every angry neighborhood and every disgruntled opponent to progress in the future, regardless of fact, data or the greater good. It will be surprising if such a council can be effective at all.

Val Hale is president and CEO of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce. Donna Milakovic is Executive Vice President of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce.

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