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Provo Mayor John Curtis on BRT: “This is What You Hired Me For, City”

Nobody ever promised that it was going to be easy.

This is the first story in our three-part series on Mayor John Curtis and the City of Provo.

John Curtis was sworn in as the 45th Mayor of Provo, Utah on January 5, 2010. In his inaugural address, Curtis said, “As a mayor, as a city council, and as a community it is our job to make sure that Provo is always a magic place. A place unlike any other on the earth. I believe this to be my ultimate stewardship.”

Four years later, after easily winning re-election with 86 percent of the vote last November, Curtis seems to have become an even bigger believer in “the magic of Provo.” In fact, the word “magic” is so ingrained in the mayor’s vocabulary, he must have used it more than a dozen times throughout our recent hour-long interview at his office in Downtown Provo.

I arrived at the mayor’s office the morning after the Provo Municipal Council voted 4–3 against Option 4 of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. Option 4 is the route preferred by Curtis, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), and the Regional Planning Commission. The council’s vote effectively put the project in serious jeopoardy; a move that could potentially cause the city to lose out on $150 million in funding for the project.

The headline on the front page of the Daily Herald on the morning of our interview read: “Future of BRT uncertain.”

I originally requested an interview with the mayor because I wanted to learn more about Google Fiber, what the city was doing to help foster entrepreneurial growth, and maybe get a timeline on when Google Fiber TV would start carrying Root Sports so Provo Utah Jazz fans can get back to cheering for their incredibly young, yet surprisingly entertaining to watch team. (You know, the important issues.)

I didn’t expect to ask many BRT questions, but I felt obligated to get the mayor’s thoughts on what had transpired the night before.

“I’m speechless,” said Curtis. “It just happened last night and I haven’t fully walked through in my mind what it is, and what happened, and what the plan is.

“I will tell you, personally, that I believe BRT is another component of this what I call “magic” that you’re seeing in Provo, this good vibe. One of the reasons I’ve been such a strong proponent of BRT is the new demographic likes to move around without an automobile. They’d like to be environmentally friendly; they want to be able to get to downtown and hop on a transit and do that, and yet that seemed to collide last night with some other thinking and I would probably say, well, I’ll be careful here. You can read through my words.”

The mayor was clearly still trying to figure out why the council would risk the total demise of BRT by rejecting the UTA’s preferred route, but instead of reading through his words, I decided to read him the words of someone else.

In a Letter to the Editor published in the Deseret News the day before my interview with the mayor, Provo resident Christian Nielson wrote, regarding the BRT Option 4 route, “the family unit is under attack right here in Provo,” and “the recent proposal of routing BRT up 9th East is by far the single most powerful attempt yet to uproot traditional families from their homes.”

I read a portion of Nielson’s letter to the mayor — without mentioning Nielson’s name — and then asked him to respond.

“Yeah, so that sounds like Christian Nielson who’s the author of that,” said Curtis. “I went and met with him and I believe we see the impact of this differently.”

To Curtis, those who oppose the BRT Option 4 project are just another obstacle Provo must hurdle in his quest to maintain — and possibly even expand upon — the city’s magical mystique.

“I think it’s fair to say that the Provo of our past is confronting the Provo of our future,” said Curtis. “And there’s growing pains in that, and there’s controversy in that.

“I have enough confidence in Provo that we’ll do the right thing and we’ll figure this out. And I say that without laying down specifics; just look at our track record for the last four years. This isn’t going to stop us. This momentum, this buzz is just going to go right over the top of this. It’s kind of like that wave coming in on the ocean, when you’re standing right there, and then boom! That’s how stoppable this is, in the sense of what’s happening.”

There’s almost nothing more frightening than getting caught under a wave, knowing it’s about to crash on top of you. I asked the mayor if he thought fear was causing some Provo residents to oppose the BRT Option 4 project.

“That’s why I use that analogy, this is scary for people, this bus,” said Curtis. “It’s scaring the people in this neighborhood; and what does it mean, and it’s change, and our lives are never going to be the same, and they’re probably right. There are some of us that believe it’s a positive change, and we’re fighting those who believe it’s a negative change.”

The Provo Municpal Council shot down the BRT Option 4 project exactly three weeks ago. Since that time, according to local news reports, the mayor and his administration have focused on almost nothing else, “basically shutting down the day-to-day work of the city while the administration looks for ways to salvage the project.”

Having had the opportunity to sit in his office just hours after being rejected by the council, I’m not surprised the mayor is trying to will the BRT Option 4 project back to life. He was already formulating a plan to do just that the morning after experiencing one of the most disappointing moments of his political career.

“In essence, the Provo City Council is one voice in many voices of whether or not we should have BRT,” said Curtis. “This is bigger than Provo. And so, you’ve got the council that weighed in with a 4–3 vote. It wasn’t a 7–0 vote, but it was a 4–3 vote.

“They weighed in last night and said they didn’t like what they felt like it did to a neighborhood. And there was quite a bit of discussion about what it really does to a neighborhood, but there will be many voices weighing in on it. There will be my personal voice; there will be the Chamber of Commerce; there will also be other residents, things like that. And all those voices will determine what the future of BRT is, not just one voice. And so it shouldn’t be taken lightly, but at the same time people need to realize it’s one voice of many, and BRT is just too important for this community to let what happened last night decide its fate.”

The mayor is a businessman at heart. In most instances, he believes the government should just get out of the way and let the free market run its course. But infrastructure is the responsibility of government, and the mayor understands the business community is looking to him to solve this problem.

“Probably the single biggest concern I hear from businesses in Provo is access to employees,” said Curtis. “And so FrontRunner and BRT is my best answer to that.”

The situation may look dire at the moment, but one thing the mayor doesn’t lack is confidence.

“I put my head on my pillow last night, and what really came up to my mind was, yeah, this is what you hired me for, city. When it’s easy you don’t need me. And nobody ever promised that it was going to be easy,” said Curtis.

After the Provo Municipal Council rejected Option 4, UTA General Manager Mike Allegra told the council, “The uncertainty at the federal level is weighing on me. I cannot predict what will happen. I don’t know where to go. We’ve stated our case. There are lots of needs in this valley.”

Can the mayor and the council come together to make BRT a reality in Provo?

“We have to,” said Curtis. “Now will it morph and change, and are we into that part of politics that’s compromise? Sure. But we have to salvage the project.”

According to his bio page on Provo.org, Curtis is a “problem solver” with a “get it done” attitude. If he manages to pull the BRT out of his hat and gets the project back on track, Provo residents should just start calling him “the magic man.”

This story has been updated.

The second story in our three-part series on Mayor John Curtis and the City of Provo will focus on Google Fiber coming to town. Stay tuned.

Published 3/4/2014