Bill allowing pregnant women to use Utah's carpool lanes gains House approval | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Bill allowing pregnant women to use Utah's carpool lanes gains House approval 

Baby On Board

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click to enlarge Rep. Stephanie Gricius, R-Eagle Mountain, presents her bill to permit pregnant mothers in highway carpool lanes to the House Transportation Committee on Monday, Jan. 30. - BENJAMIN WOOD
  • Benjamin Wood
  • Rep. Stephanie Gricius, R-Eagle Mountain, presents her bill to permit pregnant mothers in highway carpool lanes to the House Transportation Committee on Monday, Jan. 30.

Note: This article was updated on Feb. 8.

CAPITOL HILL—Utah's interstate carpool lanes are the latest battleground in the Culture Wars after a bill defining a pregnant driver as two vehicle occupants earned approval from the Utah House last week.

Eagle Mountain Republican Rep. Stephenie Gricius, the bill's sponsor, described her proposal as a "life-affirming" effort and made little mention of traffic management during her presentations on the House floor and during the bill's committee hearing, which largely consisted of representatives of pro-life advocacy groups voicing their support for fetal acknowledgment.

"As we move away from abortions here in Utah, this is a cost-free way to say to the ladies in the room, 'We see you,'" Gricius said.

The bill, HB256, is a unique combination of two of the Utah Legislature's highest priories—personhood for the unborn and the right of drivers to operate a private vehicle as quickly and with as few obstacles as possible. Members of the House Transportation Committee advanced the bill to the full House in a 6-3 vote, with those opposed suggesting the change could add to growing frustrations over high-occupancy (HOV) lane use, or that law enforcement personnel might be compelled to simply stop pulling over any woman traveling alone in a car. The House then voted 49-23 in favor of the legislation, moving it to the Senate.

"Certainly someone could be dishonest trying to get out of a ticket and say 'I’m pregnant so it’s OK,'" said Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper. "I worry that if we open up the carpool lane to nearly half of our population, it starts to dilute the purpose of the carpool lane. Why have a carpool lane at that point?"

Traditionally, carpool lanes have had a dual purpose of, first, reducing congestion and emissions by encouraging drivers to combine trips and, second, to generate revenue through tolls that can offset the massive subsidization of private vehicle travel on free-to-use highways. Rep. Brett Garner, D-Murray, pointed out that opening the carpool lane to pregnant women achieves none of these goals and could, potentially, work against them.

"It doesn't take a car off the road when we’re doing this," Garner said. "In my opinion, we’re adding cars by doing this."

During the House floor debate, Garner proposed an amendment that would have preserved the acknowledgment of unborn children while raising the passenger minimum in HOV lanes to three, including the driver. Representatives rejected his amendment before approving the underlying legislation.

Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, noted that women with newborn children are already permitted to use HOV lanes, despite those passengers being largely invisible to law enforcement personnel and not contributing to traffic mitigation. Expanding the law to include the unborn, she said, would have the effect of allowing women to use the carpool lane "a few months early."

"I don't see how this would change what already exists today," she said.

During public comment in committee, women representing Pro-Life Utah and the Utah Eagle Forum spoke in favor, citing the recent reversal of the U.S. Supreme Court on abortion rights and noting that Utah state law already grants personhood to unborn children in situations like a murder, for which a perpetrator can be charged with double homicide after killing an expecting parent.

"We now have a chance to solve the abortion crisis in this country," said Mary Taylor, president of Pro-Life Utah. "But to do this we must change our culture to one of support and love for all women and babies."

But Brent Budge, a Murray resident, questioned the premise of the bill and the need for transportation policy to contemplate the thorny issue of when life legally begins.

"This bill does not make our roads safer, does not make our air cleaner, does not increase the effectiveness of carpool lanes," Budge said. "I just don’t think this is a pressing priority for our Legislature right now."

The state is currently in the early stages of a proposed expansion of Interstate 15, which could see the addition of extra carpool lanes and/or express lanes that reverse travel directions during the day. Those investments are likely to come at the expense of existing homes and neighborhoods in Salt Lake and Davis Counties, though planners have yet to finalize an expansion route.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) argues the expansion is needed to prevent drive times from becoming burdensome in the future as the state's population increases. But similar highway expansions in other states have demonstrated only short-term gains in commute times, quickly followed by a worsening of traffic conditions to match or even exceed pre-expansion figures, a phenomenon known as "induced demand."

UDOT representatives say the freeway expansion is being considered in concert with improvements to mass transit—particularly the FrontRunner train, which was built in hard-to-access areas and with a single track, making convenient service impossible. Work on double-tracking the train is currently in progress, but the overall effort has languished for more than 20 years.

During the current legislative session, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, has repeatedly cited the need to "fix" FrontRunner so that it is competitive with private vehicle travel. But the chamber's transportation committee has engaged in only fleeting mentions of rail travel amid lengthy debate around driving services.

Last year, UDOT was formally charged with overseeing "fixed-guideway" transit (trains and bus rapid transit, or BRT) as part of its overall transportation portfolio. But since then, the department has been silent on any new plans for transit expansion and improvement, and silent on any alterations to its car-focused institutional structure.

has been slated for double-tracking since its creation more than 20 years ago. Despite those claims, UDOT has been silent on any new or detailed plans for transit expansion or adjustments to its institutional structure since being formally charged with overseeing fixed-guideway rail and busing development during the 2022 legislative session.

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Benjamin Wood

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