Opinion: The relevance of the S-Line

For decades, a corridor approximately 66 feet wide and two miles long sat relatively unused. Lying half in South Salt Lake and half in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood, the corridor initially played host to the railroad that once stretched between Salt Lake City and Park City by way of Parleys Canyon.

Although the track east of Highland Drive had been abandoned half a century before, local freight trains still served industrial customers along the corridor—the most notable of which was Granite Furniture, where Sugarmont Apartments is now located—up until the corridor was sold to the Utah Transit Authority in a right of way deal that enabled FrontRunner and additional TRAX lines to be built.

As time passed, the rails and ties became overgrown with vegetation and the street crossings were paved over. At the same time, new ideas emerged for how to put the corridor to better use. Doug White had an idea to use the corridor to run a trolley that would connect the heart of Sugar House west to the existing Central Pointe TRAX station. He created the nonprofit Sugarhouse Trolley Association to advocate for his vision. Late in 2005, we crossed paths. Since Doug had no map to aid in his advocacy, I offered to make one. In January 2006, the first map of the Sugarhouse Trolley was made.

The Sugarhouse Trolley Association’s vision of what would eventually become the S-Line. Image from 2006.

Throughout 2006, Doug White had multiple meetings with leaders of Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, and UTA. Doug ended up moving to Boise in 2007, but he had planted seeds that were soon to sprout. Doug’s idea began to take hold as the two cities applied for a TIGER grant from the US Department of Transportation. In October 2010, the federal government awarded $26 million to UTA to start construction on what would eventually be named the S-Line.

October 27, 2010: The then Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, awards $26 million to the Utah Transit Authority to start the construction of the S-Line.

While construction started on the streetcar tracks, attention turned towards what could be done with the rest of the corridor. At an average of 66 feet wide, the corridor presented the opportunity to also host a linear park with a multi-use path. The vision for the Parleys Trail—which would connect the Bonneville Shoreline Trail at the mouth of Parleys Canyon west to the Jordan River Trail—was being developed at the same time. It made sense to use this linear park to host Parleys Trail.

May 9, 2012: The Utah Transit Authority holds a groundbreaking event at what would later become the site of the South Salt Lake City stop along the S-Line.

In the fall of 2012, I interned with Salt Lake City’s Transportation Division and again played a role in shaping the corridor. UTA wanted the streetcar tracks and the trail to be separated by a fence, which is an appropriate separation elsewhere in UTA’s system where trains run at speeds up to 80 mph adjacent to trails.

However, Salt Lake City had a different vision for the corridor given that the streetcar would have a top speed of 25 mph. I spent the majority of my internship searching out and documenting other examples throughout the country of light rail lines running adjacent to trains and what separations were employed, if any at all. In the end, Salt Lake City was able to convince UTA that no fence was necessary.

In December 2013, the streetcar, linear park, and trail opened to great acclaim. As successful as the S-Line has been as a transportation corridor, it has been even more successful as an impetus for redevelopment in Sugar House and South Salt Lake. It has induced well over $1 billion dollars in private investment along the corridor. The increased tax revenue from that development will pay for the construction of the S-Line many times over. The S-Line is not just a streetcar or a linear park or a trail. It stands as an example of how investment in infrastructure shapes our future.

While riding the Parleys Trail, the author snaps a photo of the S-Line Streetcar crossing 600 East.

People said that TRAX would never be built. People said that FrontRunner would never be built. People said that the S-Line would never be built. Today some of the same naysayers use these services daily.

For the past five years, I have advocated for expanding passenger rail across Utah despite naysayers claiming that it can’t be done. While billions of dollars have been invested expanding public transit along the Wasatch Front, transit investment connecting the entire state and surrounding states has been almost nonexistent. The initial LinkUtah proposal would connect the Wasatch Front north to Logan, southeast to Moab and Grand Junction, and southwest to Cedar City and Saint George.

In recent years, the Rio Grande Plan has emerged as a way to give Salt Lake City the central station that it needs and also serve as the impetus for another redevelopment in Salt Lake City despite naysayers claiming that it can’t be done. One only needs to travel to Denver in order to experience what the redevelopment of Denver Union Station has done to spur the redevelopment of the city’s downtown. Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande Depot could once again serve as a nexus not only for redevelopment but also as a train station and transit hub.

Both visions would help Salt Lake City and Utah move away from continued dependence on automobiles. It’s time for us to build the future that Salt Lake City and Utah need.

Mike Christensen works as Executive Director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association and serves as Vice-Chair of Salt Lake City’s Planning Commission.

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.