Council wants more from draft Transit Master Plan

Map of the proposed Frequent Transit Network. Image courtesy Salt Lake City public documents.

A lot has happened in the two years since city transportation officials first presented the goals for the city’s first ever Transit Master Plan.  There was a lot less residential construction in March 2015, when transportation officials first went before City Council to discuss the proposed plan’s framework.  Two years, several thousand new residential units and a new administration later, transportation officials returned to council with a revised draft plan during Tuesday’s work session.

“I think today is a pretty huge accomplishment.  We made this commitment three years ago,” said Council member Stan Penfold.  “My hope that we can end the year with adoption and a good plan for implementation because I think this is really groundbreaking for Salt Lake City.”

Despite their support for the plan’s central goal to improve the city’s transit network, council members expressed a desire for a more robust implementation and the re-inclusion of plans for an expanded rail and streetcar network.

The planning process began when the council developed and defined six goals to address transit deficiencies in a 2013 retreat.  Those goals focus on increasing connectivity, affordability, route reliability, route frequency and expanding the city’s transit network.

The draft plan lays out transit goals for the next 20 years and builds around the expansion of Frequent Transit Networks (FTN), transit routes that run on 10-15 minute frequencies.  According to the draft plan authors, the central goal of the FTN is to create “a stable, relatively unchanging part of the system so that riders can rely on it as much as they do the TRAX system.”

The plan also calls for enhanced bus routes, improved east-to-west connections and a more locally focused grid transit network based on the city’s current grid system for city streets.

By 2040, city officials expect the population to grow by 40,000 new residents and 20,000 new employees.  If the draft plan were fully implemented, by 2040 73 percent of the city’s residents would be within a quarter-mile of the FTN.

UTA has already identified several routes as high priority routes and prime candidates for more frequent service.  These routes include 200 South, State Street, 500 East, 900 East, 1300 East, North and South Temple, 2100 South, 2100 East and Redwood Road.  The draft transit plan identifies these routes as tier one routes and would prioritize these routes as the initial components of the FTN.  Other tier one routes include improving east-to-west connections with improvements to 400 South, 1300 South and 900 South.

Under the current version of the draft master plan, the FTN would be implemented in stages starting with the tier one routes, starting with 200 South, then expanding the network to include tier two routes.

Council member Erin Mendenhall questioned the benefit of a slow-increment implementation. Mendenhall referenced Los Angeles that will use a $120 billion voter-approved bond to expand and improve the city’s transit network.  The district five representative also cited the rollout of the S-Line, which debuted in 2013 on a limited schedule with 20-minute intervals and has seen low ridership, as an example of the negative effects of a slow-increment implementation.

“To succeed this (the transit plan) needs a full set of legs in order to walk,” said Mendenhall.

The plan addresses current gaps in local service including a commuter-focused system and limited route service on the city’s west side.   Despite being the state’s largest city, just over half of the city’s population lives within a high-frequency bus route.

UTA runs seven high-frequency bus routes in Salt Lake City, most of which are on the tier one corridors.  High-frequency routes include: Redwood Road (Route 217), 200 South Street (Route 2), 2100 South and 2100 East streets (Route 21), State Street North (Route 200), 500 East Street (Route 205), 900 East Street (Route 209) and Highland Drive and 1300 East Street (Route 220).

“What we have right now is a network that really starts shutting down at 6 o’clock,” said UTA President & CEO, Jerry Benson.

Several council members expressed concerns about the current version of the draft plan’s reduced emphasis on streetcar corridors.  The plan acknowledges city support for potential corridors rail including the proposed Black TRAX Line, that would connect the University of Utah to the airport, and a streetcar connecting the University of Utah to downtown, but the plan does not directly include any streetcar routes in the FTN.

“We need to add that back in,” said Council member Charlie Luke, “so we create some predictability for the future.”

Council member Charlie Luke told officials that he wants to see the transit plan implementation and potential rail routes incorporated into already planned transportation upgrades.  Many of the city’s streets are in serious need of repair and Luke would like to see rail projects or other transit infrastructure included in street repairs.

To implement the FTN as currently proposed would cost UTA an estimated $7 million more per year than 2014 operating costs. Over the next few months, the City Council will hold public hearings to allow residents to provide more feedback before deciding to officially adopt the draft plan as is.

Besides funding concerns, Salt Lake City has been without a transportation director since summer of 2016.  Additionally, the Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s administration appears to have made rail transit a lower priority.  Last year the mayor opted not to reapply for a TIGER grant for the S-Line expansion in Sugar House.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at