Is the bus vs. streetcar debate good for Salt Lake?

Streetcars wait at the 500 East station along the S-Line in South Salt Lake City.  Photo by Isaac Riddle.
Streetcars wait at the 500 East station along the S-Line in South Salt Lake City. Photo by Isaac Riddle.

The downtown streetcar is still just an idea but already has proven to be a contentious issue.   Many on the Salt Lake City council don’t seem convinced that a streetcar is needed in downtown Salt Lake.  Arguing instead for improved bus service for downtown.  City council’s response to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s plan for the downtown streetcar has pushed the debate into a buses vs. rail.

In an op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s Salt Lake Tribune, Mayor Becker and CEO of Utah Transit Authority, Michael Allegra argued that the debate doesn’t not need to be streetcar vs. bus.   In their op-ed, Becker and Allegra argue that buses and rail transit serve different needs.  According to both men, streetcars and rail transit spur development and have a higher return of investments, while buses are better for the the basic transportation purpose of getting a person from one place to another.

The Mayor has proposed a streetcar that would run along 200 South east of State Street and eventually end in the Granary District near 900 South and either 400 or 500 West.

Yesterday’s op-ed could have been a response to an editorial published earlier this month by the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board.  In the editorial, the Tribune argues that a streetcar may not be best for downtown.  According to the Tribune, buses are cheaper than rail and it can be hard to predict neighborhood development patterns.

In another piece published by the Tribune earlier this week, the lower than expected ridership of the S-line, Salt Lake’s only current streetcar line, in the Sugar House neighborhood.  The Tribune article compares the S-line to Bus Route 21 that follows a parallel route as the streetcar between State Street and 1000 East along 2100 South.

Salt Lake’s debate is not unique, many cities are debating between the benefits of streetcars over buses.   Buses are cheaper to maintain and don’t require any construction.  But streetcars carry more people, are on a fixed route, attract more riders and have shown to spur economic development along their routes.

According to Citylab, an under-construction streetcar line along H Street in the Northeast section of Washington DC brought significant development and increased property values in and around the corridor in anticipation for the new streetcar line.  While the new line has yet to open and has experienced many delays the growth it has produced continues.

While ridership on the S-line streetcar is lower than initial expectations, there will be 371 of new residential units within a block of the Fairmont S-line station at the corner of McClelland St. and Sugarmont Dr. in Sugar House.  Another 212 residential units will be completed sometime next year at 1201 Wilmington Ave., just two blocks from Fairmont Sation.   The addition of over 500 residential units to the area should contribute to an increase in ridership.

The streetcar in Sugar House has proven to help spur development.   The Granary District is emerging as a neighborhood ripe for development with a growing artist community and great location close to both downtown and 1-15.  A streetcar could provide the return of investment that would make the Granary and Depot Districts into walkable and burgeoning communities.  The revitalization of the Granary and Depot districts not only benefit those communities, but benefits the city as a whole and provides not only more tax revenue but more urban minded residents that will help Salt Lake mature as a city.

The most successful transit systems provide various modes of transit.  It is not a question of buses vs. streetcars but more about meeting the needs for a growing city which will most likely include a healthy mix of both streetcars and buses.


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