July 21, 2010

Recent goings-on in Orem highlight some key points of what government should and should not spend money on.

Last week the Utah Taxpayers Association held a rally in Orem to focus on problems it sees in the UTOPIA system and its funding. Meanwhile, the city is also asking for public feedback on a draft plan for a bicycle and pedestrian network.

The differences in the two endeavors are illuminating:

Cost: Orem, Payson and Lindon are among the cities backing UTOPIA, the municipally owned fiber-optics network. So far UTOPIA has been funded by $200 million in bonds, backstopped by the cities. Orem is part of the compact, and would bond for an additional $60 million.

By contrast, the bicycle and pedestrian trails project so far has cost $110,000 for a study. Ninety-three percent of that is paid for through federal funding to the Mountainland Association of Governments, with Orem paying the remaining 7 percent.

There’s no need to commit huge amounts of funding up front for bicycle lanes. Painting some stripes and putting up signs could help make the city more bicycle-friendly without, say, spending millions of dollars.

Future trail expansions could be created on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Public use. Residents pay for UTOPIA hook-ups and Internet service for their own private information and entertainment. Biking and hiking trails are available to everyone, without charge.

Prospects. So far UTOPIA has run in the red. It could turn around, of course, but that’s a rather risky bet. No one can say for sure what developments in business and technology will do to the digital world.

Trails, on the other hand, are always going to be appreciated here. Utah Valley has one of the most attractive settings of any urban area in the U.S., and people here tend to be active. A trail system or anything else that enhances outdoor recreation will always be an asset here.

Government competence. UTOPIA cities such as Orem, Lindon and Payson are competing with big-time communications companies. That doesn’t sound like a fair fight. You don’t expect Comcast to pave State Street. So why expect Orem or Lindon to run a fiber-optic network profitably?

But every day cities work on parks and roads. Orem and other municipalities can manage bike lanes and hiking trails with one hand tied behind their backs.

We bring this all up because the fine points can get lost in debate. Defenders of UTOPIA point out that such technologies often take a decade or more to turn a profit. But that’s not the real issue. No one would be concerned if the amount of money were small, if the prospects were clearer, if it the network were of wider benefit, or if it fell within the scope of a city’s normal mission.

Unfortunately, the opposite of all these things is true. Even cities that own enterprises (electrical generation, for instance) are fish out of water in the high-tech networking business.

That’s why public anxiety over UTOPIA is growing. It’s ultra-expensive, and government is generally incompetent to run it.

Local governments should take heed. We’re all rooting for the UTOPIA gamble to pay off, which it might — though the odds get slimmer by the day. It’s simply better for public bodies to work on low-cost, low-maintenance projects from which the public as a whole can benefit.

In other words, stick to trail-building, and politely decline the next time someone suggests getting involved in the latest, greatest technological advance.