- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Driving around the Salt Lake City metro area isn’t always fast and easy, but average commute times for motorists in Utah’s capital city are less than the national average and shorter than many other major Western cities, shows Census data analyzed by The Associated Press.

The average commute is about 22 minutes, according to 2013 census data. That’s less than the national average of nearly 26 minutes and well below Las Vegas and Denver. Las Vegas residents spend an average of 24 minutes on the road, while Denver drivers spend 27 minutes.

Commute times in Utah’s metro areas have remained largely the same since 2007, despite a population increase of about 15 percent in the last 15 years.

The average commute times for residents in the Orem-Clearfield and Provo-Orem areas are basically the same as Salt Lake City, the data shows.

The AP analyzed decades of travel and population data and found many regions across the U.S. struggling with traffic congestion that may only worsen as populations increase.

Over the next 25 years, Utah’s population is expected to double. In the Salt Lake City metro area, the state’s largest, the population is expected to increase to 1.2 million by 2020, a 13-percent increase from 2010, census data shows.

The Ogden metro area is expected to have nearly 674,000 people by 2020, up from nearly 634,000 currently. The Provo area is projected to increase to nearly 624,000, up from almost 571,000 now, data shows.

The ability of Utah’s infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing number of residents doesn’t appear to be guaranteed. The state faces an estimated $11.3 billion funding shortfall over the next 25 years for key transportation projects around the state to maintain, repair and build new roads and improve public transit systems, according to the Utah Transportation Coalition.

But some help is on the way.

Legislators passed a new gas tax this year that is expected to bring in about $100 million over the next two years to maintain smaller roads and replace aging bridges. Lawmakers also gave counties the authority to put a sales tax increase on their ballots in coming elections that would be one cent for every $4, said Abby Albrecht, director of the Utah Transportation Coalition.

One major challenge for metro areas in the northern part of the state is the geography, she said. They are surrounded by major mountain ranges to the east and west and the expansive Great Salt Lake lines the western flanks of Ogden and the northern part of Salt Lake City.

“The problem for us is when we double in population is how are we going to move all these people and goods and services,” Albrecht. “We can’t sprawl.”

That forces planners to study closely where the growth will be occurring and strategize how best to spend money to brace for it, she said.

Expanding hours of operation, and cutting down wait times for public buses and commuter trains is part of the long-term plan, Albrecht said.

Despite an extensive network of commuter rail lines in northern Utah that was aided in part by federal money that came ahead of the 2002 Winter Olympics, only about 2-3 percent of people over the age of 16 who work outside the home use public transit, the data shows.

For these people, the average commute time in the Salt Lake City metro area was about 44 minutes, or double the time it took motorists, according to the census. In Ogden, it takes an average of 52 minutes to commute on public transit. In Provo, 63 minutes.

Albrecht said she’s hopeful more people will use public transit in the future.

“If people try and actually realized it works for them, they would take a different attitude toward it,” Albrecht said.

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