Christensen: The real threat to the Rio Grande Plan is zero-sum thinking

A driver, a bicyclist, and a pedestrian were sitting at a bar. The bartender brings them a plate of a dozen cookies. The driver quickly snatches up eleven of the cookies, turns to the pedestrian, and while pointing at the remaining cookie, tells the pedestrian, “Watch out! The bicyclist is going to steal your cookie!”

Versions of this parable have been used through the years to illustrate how transportation funding gets sucked up by highway projects — leaving those advocates looking to diversify transportation options to fight over crumbs.

Similar fights erupted on social media following the release of the engineering analysis of the Rio Grande Plan two weeks ago as various viewpoints on the high costs of the Rio Grande Plan were expressed. Some lost faith in the plan due to the high cost, while others remained firm in their support.

Supporters met on Thursday night at Industry SLC to further examine the Kimley Horn analysis and discuss next steps for the Rio Grande Plan. Around 100 people filled the auditorium, with another two-dozen attending virtually.

City Councilman Dan Dugan continued voicing support for putting the railroad tracks below grade. Fellow supporter and Councilman Alejandro Puy was out of town that night, but City Councilwoman-elect Eva Chavez Lopez was in attendance.

Transportation Planner Joe Taylor of Salt Lake City’s Transportation Division gave an overview of the Kimley Horn analysis.

The Rio Grande Plan is one of four plans within this corridor currently being worked on by Salt Lake City and other agencies.

Salt Lake City realizes that the city’s greatest transportation problem is the east-west divide created by I-15 and the railroad tracks.

Taylor reminded the crowd that in addition to the recently completed Kimley Horn analysis, Salt Lake City is also performing a “solution agnostic” analysis titled Reconnecting Communities: Healing Salt Lake City’s East-West Divide, the funding for which was provided by a federal grant through the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant Program.

Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely speak at Industry last week.

Rio Grande Plan authors Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely explained how the Kimley Horn analysis expands upon their initial plan by increasing the length of the train box and eliminating more grade crossings. While the Kimley Horn analysis has revealed that the plan would cost considerably more than the original plan’s estimate, the extent of the new analysis is much greater than the original plan.

The original plan sought to eliminate grade crossings at 900 South, 800 South, and 200 South, and would have closed the grade crossing at 800 West while restoring a street connection at 100 South.

Map showing the original Rio Grande Plan versus the expanded extent of the Kimley Horn analysis. Blue lines show the extent of the train box in the original plan with symbols showing the original plan’s removed grade crossings. Orange lines show the extent of the train box in the Kimley Horn analysis with symbols showing additional removed grade crossings added to the Kimley Horn analysis.

The Kimley Horn analysis seeks to eliminate grade even more crossings. The firm suggested eliminating crossings at 900 South, 800 South, 200 South, 300 North, 400 North, 600 West, 800 West, and 900 West, while restoring street connections at 100 South and 200 North.

The viaducts at 400 South and at North Temple would also become unnecessary. The plan presented in the Kimley Horn analysis also increases the amount of land available for redevelopment from around 50 acres to 75 acres.

The Rio Grande Plan authors continued to stress how elimination of grade crossings is critical to increasing the reliability of FrontRunner as every grade crossing eliminated is one fewer opportunity for crossing collisions to occur.

Eliminating grade crossings also helps the psychological divide in which neighborhoods to the west are too often considered to be “on the wrong side of the tracks.” When asked about reducing the barrier created by I-15, the barrier created by the freeway was acknowledged but they stressed that the tracks crossing streets at grade pose a much greater danger than passing under freeway underpasses.

The Rio Grande Plan authors and Dugan continued to emphasize that the increase in tax revenue from redevelopment is anticipated to offset the cost of putting the railroad tracks below grade and called upon advocates to continue to support the effort. Over time, it will pay for itself.

As the benefits outweigh the cost, the threat to the Rio Grande Plan isn’t its cost. Utah has plenty of transportation funding available. We need to call upon our leadership to stop squandering transportation funding on highway expansions. The real threat to the Rio Grande Plan is zero sum thinking.

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Mike Christensen is a long-time transit expert and executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association. He also serves on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission.

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Posted by Mike Christensen

Mike Christensen recently graduated from the University of Utah with a Master of City and Metropolitan Planning, is employed as the Executive Director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, and serves on the Board of Directors of the national Rail Passengers Association.