Is rail expansion receding on the Wasatch Front?

After expansion under the Obama Administration and previous regimes at UTA, new passenger rail projects along the Wasatch Front seem all but dead.

A UTA Board claiming it has no money for capital projects, slim inclusion in regional plans, a reoriented redevelopment agency in the capitol city, and a hostile environment in DC all point to Utah losing its rail-building momentum.

Rail is a crucial component of smart growth. It is good for relieving traffic congestion and pollution. It gives commuters a quality choice beyond having to drive. It helps city residents reduce their driving and number of cars they own.

Rail is also a trigger for redevelopment, and can anchor urban design that isn’t built around the automobile. It helps placemaking in powerful ways that cars and busses cannot. It is hard to imagine walkable environments that attract residents, workers, and investors—without rail.

Despite its advantages for the economy, environment, personal health, and community, leadership on the issue has evaporated.

A skateboarder on the S-Line greenway with Trolley. Photo by Luke Garrott.

Salt Lake City master plans: more rail

Salt Lake City policy makers in recent memory have embraced rail as part of a multi-modal transportation strategy. The S-Line was an initiative of the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (RDA). Its advocacy for streetcars began in Mayor Rocky Anderson’s second term, when DJ Baxter was appointed to RDA leadership. 

For years, eager city leaders were told by UTA that the 400 South extension west to 400 or 600 West was inevitable. It would be needed to relieve an increasingly congested Main Street train corridor.

UTA officials have since backed off of their predictions for needing the “4th South Connector,” and the recent replacement of the intersection at 400 South and Main Street was completed without capacity to add track to the west.

Downtown streetcar remains in Salt Lake City master plans, as does expansion of the S-Line in Sugar House (north and south). When contacted by Building Salt Lake, city officials expressed interest in keeping streetcars in the planning mix.

From the 2010 Salt Lake City Downtown Streetcar Synopsis Report by HDR/Fehr+Peers

Under Mayor Ralph Becker (2008-16), the Salt Lake City RDA was charged “to bring streetcars back to Salt Lake City.” The S-Line in Sugar House was largely a partnership between UTA, who acquired the right-of-way and donated cars, and the Salt Lake City RDA which led the project, winning a sizeable grant from the US Department of Transportation TIGER II program.

At the federal level, the climate since 2017 has been difficult for transit advocates. In addition to holding up already-granted funding for transit projects, the FTA and DOT are also looking to localities to foot a higher percentage of the capital cost of projects. Where an 80-20 percent (Fed to local) funding share was the previous norm, agencies are signaling the new norm will be 50-50 or 40-60 percent federal to local, a source tells Building Salt Lake.

Yet despite federal footdragging (which may be short-term), the RDA has significant funding tools at hand. It could borrow against future increment, a widely-used financing mechanism employed by RDAs across the country. 

Additionally, along the proposed trolley line (100 South and 400 West), the city could be creating a special property-tax district (Business Improvement District) for adjacent property owners who would benefit massively in added value with the introduction of streetcar. 

The RDA could lead partnerships with state and county agencies to creatively finance projects led by the RDA’s significant borrowing power—secured by one of the most steady assets a city can have – property value.

S-Line at Main Street. Photo by Luke Garrott.

UTA’s plans: No more rail for decades?

UTA has built an impressive backbone of a rail network in the Salt Lake Valley since construction began on the Salt Lake City – Sandy line (now the Blue Line) in 1997.

Given their robust contacts in Washington DC transportation circles, and experience in financing, engineering, and construction, it’s no surprise that cities, counties, and the state have all deferred to UTA when construction of new rail lines is considered.

Yet it may be decades before we see rail expansion. New leadership on the UTA Board (appointed by the Governor) seems keenly attuned to criticism from the legislature and elements of the public. One lesson they are putting into action is to expand bus service.

A series of sales-tax hikes for transit in Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City will help them achieve that goal, especially in Salt Lake City. The city council and UTA recently signed a 20-year Interlocal Agreement for bus services. This year, the Salt Lake City Council has put close to $6 million toward expanding service within city limits, which will start in August.

Salt Lake City and UTA will be expanding bus service in August. Photo by Luke Garrott.

The $5.3 million purchase of service from UTA will probably turn into a yearly budget line for Salt Lake City.

Given the load of debt from its TRAX expansions of the last decade, the new three-member UTA board is convinced that “We have no capacity to do capital projects,” says Board Chairman Carlton Christensen.

The only rail project mentioned by Board trustee Christensen is an improvement of FrontRunner commuter rail. UDOT may be interested in double-tracking and electrification, one of 7 rail projects called for in the next 30 years in Wasatch Front Regional Council’s 2050 Transportation Plan draft. Funding sources for the FrontRunner project mentioned by Christensen are at this point hypothetical.

Wasatch Choice WFRC 2050 Rail Projects

ProjectDescriptionPhase:
1=2020-30, 2=2030-40, 3=2040-50
2019 CostPhased Cost
Double-track FrontRunnnerFrom: Salt Lake County Line
To: Utah County Line
Length: 4 miles
Needed: 1
Scheduled: 2
Capital Cost:
$114,470,000
Operating Cost: $0
Capital Cost:
$214,400,000
Operating Cost: $0
Electrify FrontRunnerFrom: Salt Lake County Line
To: Utah County Line
Length: 27.5 miles
Needed: 2
Scheduled: Unscheduled
Capital Cost:
$749,560,000
Operating Cost:
$21,000,000
Green TRAX Line Reconfiguration
Light Rail (on existing ROW)
From: 700 South
To: Gateway Plaza
Length: 1.7 miles
Needed: 2
Scheduled: 2
Capital Cost:
$87,839,000
Operating Cost:
$2,006,000
Capital Cost:
$164,521,000
Operating Cost:
$3,096,000
S Line extension to 400 South
Street Car
From: McClelland St. S Line
Station
To: 900 E. TRAX Station
Length: 3.05 miles
Needed: 2
Scheduled: Unscheduled
Capital Cost:
$147,773,000
Operating Cost:
$1,525,000
S Line extension to Millcreek
Street Car
From: McLelland Station
To: 1300 East & 3900 South
Length: 2.65 miles
Needed: 2
Scheduled: Unscheduled
Capital Cost:
$128,393,000
Operating Cost:
$1,325,000
Salt Lake Loop (S Line Extensions)
Street Car
From: Central Pointe Station
To: University of Utah
Length: 6.548 miles
Needed: 2
Scheduled: 3
Capital Cost:
$317,251,000
Operating Cost:
$3,274,000
Capital Cost:
$879,569,000
Operating Cost:
$6,628,000
Draper TRAX Line (South)
Light Rail (on existing ROW)
From: Draper TRAX Station

To: Salt Lake/Utah County Line
Length: 7 miles
Needed: 1
Scheduled: 3
Capital Cost:
$361,690,000
Operating Cost:
$8,260,000
Capital Cost:
$1,002,775,000
Operating Cost:
$16,723,000
400 South Connection (TRAX)
Light Rail
From: Salt Lake Central
To: Main Street & 400 South
Length: 1.1 miles
Needed: 1
Scheduled: 2
Capital Cost:
$75,779,000
Operating Cost:
$5,900,000
Capital Cost:
$141,933,000
Operating Cost:
$9,107,000

Wasatch Choice 2050: So many road projects, so few rail

Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), our metropolitan planning organization, recently completed its 30-year plan for growth. While generally credited with espousing progressive planning principles, the draft Regional Transportation Plan of the 2050 document is remarkable in its complacency with the status quo.

In Salt Lake County alone, over 200 road projects (including widening and new construction) are named. More than $15 billion in capital investment in roads is called for over the 30-year plan in Salt Lake County, a 5:1 ratio of roads to transit in capital spending ($15.7 to $3.1 billion).

Take out the parking and you can have more sidewalk dining. Toronto’s King Street Transitway, photo by Jennifer Keesmaat.

From an environmental perspective, one wonders if our regional planners know what time it is. Ted Knowlton, Deputy Director of WFRC, responded to Building Salt Lake’s assertions in a tweet, “It is not a matter of planning [it] is a matter of funding. We are limited by the funding that is available to us for roads, transit and bicycling. That is a state and federal issue generally.”

Clearly, visioning and actual budgets are linked and dialectical. And administrators are always more than simple agents carrying out directives from above. If they represent the best standards of their profession, planners and engineers must design budgets, principles, and plans that exude a smart growth agenda.

For their part, local policymakers seem content to shrug and pass the buck, insisting that their financing options are limited to what higher levels of government will give them. It’s a plausible excuse – if you’re fine with current development patterns and the future they will bring.

Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.