Exit Interview: Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker


Ryan Holeywell | January 4, 2016The urban planner-turned-mayor reflects on his 8 years in office and how he helped transform the city.

Man speaking

The urban planner-turned-mayor reflects on his 8 years in office and how he helped transform the city.

Ralph Becker wrapped up his tenure as mayor of Salt Lake City this week, vacating a post he's held since 2008 after failing to win re-election to a third term.

Becker, who previously served in the state legislature, is an attorney and an urban planner who founded a planning consulting firm and has lectured at University of Utah. During his time in office, he prioritized livability, mobility, and downtown development.

He also served as president of the National League of Cities, acting as an important voice for localities across the country.

Before leaving office, Becker spoke with the Urban Edge and reflected on his time as mayor. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You’ve done what every urban planner secretly wants to do: led a city. What was the transition like for you professionally, going from planner to mayor?

There aren’t too many planners in politics. We’re trained and live our professional lives around cities. We've spent our careers studying what works and what doesn’t, in terms of making a place great and livable.

Having spent a career this field, to be able to serve as mayor, set an agenda for the city, and guide decisions that will improve the quality of life and the physical environment – it’s a dream.

As I was running for office, people would say, ‘oh this guy’s a planner; all he does is think about things, but he won’t get anything done.’ Almost to a fault, that hasn’t been true.

One of the things the planning world taught me is you lay out an agenda and then you go about implementing it.

When I first ran for office, I did that, and the second term was about shaping the city under the theme of livability, with new actions to pursue. We were aggressive in pursuing our aspirations in concrete ways. So this was kind of a dream as a planner.

Salt Lake City has really transformed over the last 8 years and is often viewed as a model for other younger, growing cities. In terms of ‘livability,’ were you just responding to what residents wanted, or were you trying to encourage a new way of thinking?

It was a mix of things. As I look at the elements of our community, what I saw was that we had a downtown that wasn’t bustling. It wasn’t the vibrant center we wanted. There were elements though. We had built a light rail system that provided a starting point for good circulation within downtown.

We had some spots downtown that were relatively active and some that were starting to get development. We had a strong office and commercial environment, but as a planner, I could see we needed to fill in some gaps with activity generators. To have a 24/7 community, we needed residential development.

I looked at it in terms of what are the most important and critical investments we could make as a city that would help us achieve a vibrant downtown. What could we encourage – whether it’s incentives or a regulatory system – that would provide the right conditions for development. We also had to get the planning and zoning and housing policies right. Eight years later, we have a truly vibrant downtown. It’s busy at night.

What about the priority you’ve placed on bike lanes?

During my first campaign, I was knocking on doors, and it surprised me how many people said they wanted to be able to bike around the city but they were scared to death of the roads. I had always biked recreationally, but I never commuted by bike for the same reason. So from my first day in office, I started moving money. We went from a budget of $50,000 to $500,000 for bike improvements, and now it’s up to $6 million per year. We’ve completely re-oriented our investments. That wasn’t my idea. It came from people I ran into door-to-door.

Salt Lake City is in the middle of a transit boom and recently built its first new streetcar line. But streetcars are sometimes controversial, since some people believe they work better as a development mechanism than a real transportation solution. What do you think of them?

We used to have 140 miles of streetcar, and like so many other places, we tore it up after World War II. It was on a distant horizon to bring in back under the state transportation plan, but I said ‘let’s pursue this now,’ and we were fortunate enough to get a federal TIGER grant.

It enabled us financially to do the project and make it truly multi-modal. We added bicycle and pedestrian access along the corridor, so it was a like a park strip. It was completed at the end of 2013.

It wasn’t without controversy. Ridership hasn’t been as good as we wanted. The line stopped before the heart of a commercial area known as Sugar House. We knew we’d need to extend it. It’s been approved, but it hasn’t been built yet. Those of us who know streetcars know transportation is only part of the benefit. The result has been hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. We’ve taken a place that was downtrodden, in terms of business activity, and made it a booming part of the city. It’s had an incredibly positive effect on enlivening part of the city that had a rich history but had undergone bad times.

As president of the National League of Cities, you had a unique role acting as the voice of America’s cities in Washington. I know so many mayors complain about the uncertain the feds create – they take forever to pass budgets, they took forever to pass a transportation bill. Do you think the situation will ever improve?

It’s astounding to me that Congress, until literally just a few weeks ago, could not do its job of funding the federal transportation system.

I was on this panel of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, and the members of Congress kept saying “there’s no question we need all of these improvements, but how are we going to fund it?”

I had reached a point of frustration, after about the 10th time this was asked. When there’s a need, and there’s not a silver bullet, you have to make hard decisions. That’s what we get elected to do. It’s what people expect of us at the local level, or else we wouldn’t have the resources to fund streets or buses or streetlights.

To have Congress finally pass the transportation bill, while it didn’t go far enough, was encouraging. We still need to have a long-term funding source though. And while they’ve taken some steps, the transportation bill does not reflect the changing needs of urban areas, where 80 percent of the population of this country lives.

What are your future plans?

I’m going to take a hike for a few weeks. I’m taking most of January off. Then I’ll see what’s out there and how I can contribute in some way. I don’t have specific plans. I’m just taking a little time off.

When I speak with you, it makes me think we need more planners in elected office.

There’s no question in my mind that planners are well-suited to serve as mayor. It’s unfortunate they’re reluctant to pursue elected office.

We bring a skillset and knowledge and experience. In Salt Lake City – and we’re probably not the exception – a strong majority of the decisions made by the city council are land-use decisions. On top of that, planners understand how investments can be prioritized to make a big difference. We understand how to make pieces of the puzzle fit together. We tend to look longer-term.

Often, when a planner is working in a community, he doesn’t want to get involved in running for elected office there. Some people do. But you can get elected to office in the community where you live, which may be different from where you work. Our communities would be so much better off if we had more planners in elected office.

In my experience, which has spanned 20 years, other elected officials appreciate having someone with a planning background in office too.

Ryan Holeywell
Mailing Address

6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892


Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Featured Sponsor

Support the Kinder Institute