OPINION: UTA should be all aboard with the Rio Grande Plan. Let them hear it

This is an opinion piece submitted by Matt Givens. If you’re interested in submitting an op-ed to Building Salt Lake, email info@buildingsaltlake.com.

The Utah Transit Authority’s decision to approve a million-dollar contract for design work of a new headquarters shows that UTA isn’t even interested in or considering the Rio Grande Plan.

That’s a mistake, and the public needs to take this opportunity to let UTA hear it.

The transit agency is overlooking a citizen-driven concept that has been gaining  traction in the Salt Lake City community over the past three years. Instead, it’s moving ahead with a plan that will act as yet another roadblock to a revitalized Central Station area.

Inspired by the successes of the Denver Union Station and other projects like it, the Rio Grande Plan aims to remove the large, underutilized rail yards that divide the city. It would divert all freight and passenger rail traffic into a cut-and-cover “train box” underground along the publicly owned right of way of 500 West.

With the cooperation of Union Pacific, this would open over 50 acres of downtown-adjacent land for redevelopment, remove multiple dangerous rail crossings, and enable the use of the historic Rio Grande Depot as a train station once more.

In combination with the SLC Redevelopment Agency’s interest in building a permanent public market and the University of Utah’s interest in building an “innovation district” in the area, the elements would all be there for a complete, mixed-use, transit oriented neighborhood bridging the historically separated east and west sides of the city.

It would also offer the opportunity to prepare for expanded passenger rail services and provide an impressive example of modern transportation infrastructure when visitors from across the world arrive for the next Olympics.

This vision of the Rio Grande Plan has captured the imaginations of many citizens and local politicians,  culminating in an event packed with supporters in January 2023, including Mayor Erin Mendenhall all but  endorsing the concept in multiple recent public comments.

With the support of many public officials and  agencies, the capital city was selected to receive almost $2 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of the “Reconnecting Communities” grant program. SLC’s application and the award explicitly mention the Rio Grande Plan by name and recommend the train box for a feasibility study.

This is all to say that the Rio Grande Plan must now be considered legitimate by the transit-building  agencies of the state of Utah, such as UDOT and UTA, even if it is not in their existing, curated plans. To  my knowledge, UTA has been completely silent on the Rio Grande Plan except for some negative comments by the director that boil down to “it wasn’t our idea, so we don’t like it” and “that money can be better spent elsewhere.”

While the latter complaint may be more principled, it ignores the fact that the Rio Grande Plan is much more than just another transit project and that the potential financing and revenue sources are likely more diverse than those on UTA’s current balance sheets.

What we are left with is UTA signaling their disapproval by spending state taxpayer money on their  headquarters project, something that does not even acknowledge the Rio Grande Plan’s existence and  partially undermines its intentions.

Federal and local dollars are being spent to study the train box idea, yet UTA is still choosing to ignore it completely and is blazing forward with seemingly accelerated plans instead of working with the government of SLC.

Regardless of the final outcome, tax money is being wasted because of a lack of bureaucratic cooperation. 

UTA is holding in-person and virtual open houses concerning its Long-Range Transit Plan. If you support the Rio Grande Plan, this is the time to show up. 

The plan’s stated goals are “to strengthen partnerships with the communities we serve, assess long-term transit needs, develop a system-wide vision for the future, and establish strategies for implementing that plan.”

If you believe the Rio Grande Plan would be a solution with far more public benefit than a simple rebuild of Salt Lake Central with an office building, I encourage you to attend or make a comment online in support.