Rio Grande Plan could cost $3B, 10 times more than expected, engineer’s report says

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Realigning a network of heavy freight rail, regional commuter rail and Amtrak in an underground train box on the west side of Downtown would free up 75 acres of developable land in the capital city.

It would also cost $3 billion to $5 billion, according to the analysis commissioned for the city and obtained by Building Salt Lake through a public records request.

Initial estimates put the cost at around $300 million to $500 million, meaning the estimate is up to 10 times higher for the 4.2 miles of what would be a 178-foot wide “train box” located 38 feet below ground, according to the analysis by engineering firm Kimley Horn.

The estimated price tag doesn’t just include putting rail underground. It also includes the dozens of properties — mostly existing rail properties — that would need to be acquired. It includes the 13 new intersection caps, four new bridges and updates to existing utility lines. It outlined other costs not considered in the initial citizen-led plan that led to the study, known as the Rio Grande Plan, which the city has taken seriously enough to commission the study.

The Kimley Horn report is also preliminary and didn’t include a total analysis of the engineering and construction would that would need to be done to complete the plan.

Still, it included the most in-depth information to date about the potential costs and benefits for carrying out the Rio Grande Plan, whose backers have gained enough momentum to host city and transit officials at an upcoming event on Dec. 14 to discuss the plan.

Carrying out the RGP would lead to the creation of $1.9 billion in new taxable value after the development of office, commercial and residential buildings that would occur, according to the analysis.

Even so, the report may create more headwinds for a plan that has garnered an impressive amount of attention from policymakers.

The 121-page report didn’t make any recommendations about the plan, but it did highlight a few hurdles. It noted that Union Pacific Railroad, for example, sees significant challenges and almost no upside in participating in the plan.

The study was remarkable in that it was borne out of a citizen-led plan. The Rio Grande Plan authors are transit advocates and urbanists who want to revitalize the historic Rio Grande Depot, improve the transit entrance to the capital city’s Downtown, and vastly expand the footprint of Downtown, all of which would simultaneously minimize the barriers between the city’s east and west sides.

The paid for the study as part of an ongoing attempt to minimize the east-west divides the existing rail and highway infrastructure creates in Salt Lake City.

Christian Lenhart, engineer and author of The Rio Grande Plan

Christian Lenhart, one of the plan’s authors, noted that the plan intends to both improve transportation and heal divides caused by rail and highway infrastructure between the east and west sides of the city.

“What the Kimley Horn report shows is that a version of the Rio Grande Plan is feasible, that it can fulfill the city’s stated goals, and that it would cost approximately the same as other major infrastructure upgrades along I-15 and at the Airport,” Lenhart said.

For context, the Utah Department of Transportation plans to widen Interstate 15 from Downtown Salt Lake City to Farmington, which it said recently would cost about $4 billion.

Widening interstates doesn’t come with the likely economic returns that would be generated by what would likely be a frenzy of development in the Depot District if the Rio Grande Plan were carried out.

The train box envisioned by the plan would put rail underground between 1300 South and 300 North.

It would restore the Rio Grande Depot as the central hub for regional and local transit. The historic building would become a high-capacity transportation hub located at the doorstep to Downtown rather than the lethargic Salt Lake Central Station that exists a block west.

But the report makes clear that carrying out the plan would be an engineering and political feat, and it’s still unclear who is prepared to step up and lead the effort.

Key issues

Union Pacific, a private company operating in the area for over 150 years, remains a significant impediment.

While the company’s rail yard at 400 South is being used far less than it used to as the company favors sending trains to the Roper yard five miles south, it would still need to find a replacement yard if the one at 400 South was removed.

The plan also envisions spacing UPRR’s train box tracks 25 feet apart from other transit tracks, whereas the company prefers its tracks to be 50 feet away.

Moving Union Pacific tracks underground would go a long way to preventing the at times hour-long backups its trains create on a daily basis, blocking residents from getting to the east or west sides while they wait for the trains to clear from at-grade crossings.

While the company appears to have conceded moving its operations underground would help minimize the east-west divide, it doesn’t see an upside in cooperating with the RGP.

“UPRR stated that they do not foresee significant benefit to UPRR from the RGP concept,” the report said. “They consider their current right-of-way alignments to be in the ideal location and do not have plans to incur costs associated with relocating track and yard areas.”

Another freight rail provider, Patriot Rail, recently received a grant to relocate its train box at 1000 West South Temple, which represents a boon for the west side unrelated to the Rio Grande Plan, the study suggests. Patriot Rail will be vacating its existing South Temple yard.

Building the train box would create impacts to a range of existing apartments, condos and businesses near 500 West, including the Gateway Mall.

That alone is likely to create more opposition to the plan as the Gateway undergoes a decade-long attempt at revitalization and its owners and tenants could view the project as another hurdle.

There are also ecological issues to consider.

To make sure transit didn’t incur untenable delays while operating underground, the city or state would need to redirect groundwater flows away from the train box or risk creating water unspecified water issues for the rest of the city, the study said.

UTA and UDOT

The Utah Transit Authority also identified a range of issues related to its design requirements, grade of rail within the train box and proximity of stations between each other after they’re rebuilt.

UTA hasn’t been supportive whatsoever of the Rio Grande Plan and is pushing forward with its plans to rebuild its headquarters west of the Rio Grande Depot.

UDOT is another impediment, and the study wasn’t able to quantify how big an issue the highway-obsessed state agency could be.

Kimley Horn didn’t analyze whether the proposal to shorten the herculean UDOT off-ramps at 500 South and 600 South were feasible, possibly because the firm said it didn’t talk with representatives at UDOT.

The Rio Grande Plan backers originally pointed to successful efforts in other cities to estimate costs and benefits for burying rail and opening up vast swaths of land for redevelopment and public benefit.

But the Kimley Horn study found the costs in Salt Lake City would be much higher than in those cities.

It’s not clear why the estimated costs are so much higher than Denver’s similar effort, which created a bustling Union Station and revitalized the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Denver’s project, completed in 2014, would have cost $645 million in 2023 dollars and freed up 42 acres for redevelopment.

Another project in Reno that freed up 100 acres of land for development cost $450 million in 2023 dollars.

It’s not clear who would own and maintain the train box, a concern that was raised by Union Pacific Railroad officials who were interviewed for the Kimley Horn report. That fact, along with even the constructability of the project, require more review, Kimley Horn wrote.

Still, “based on stakeholder discussions, UPRR does not have expressed interest in owning or being responsible for the maintenance of the train box.”

That leaves the city, state, UTA or some newly created transportation authority as the likely parties responsible for owning and maintaining the train box.

Olympics boost?

During an announcement Wednesday that Salt Lake City was the official front-runner to host the 2034 Winter Olympics, officials said that President Joe Biden had provided a guarantee for the U.S. host city.

That likely means cash would be available should it be needed.

Online, transit advocates suggested winning the bid could make it more likely that the Rio Grande Plan was carried out ahead of the games.

Still, Kimley Horn notes that using federal funds for even part of the RGP would mean following the National Environmental Policy Act, which could slow it down and open it up to litigation.

Kimley Horn’s cost estimate of $3 billion to $5 billion includes a 30 percent contingency for unknown items.

Lenhart said he was hopeful city and state leaders would look at the plan’s wide range of potential benefits.

“I am hopeful that the upcoming study period will show that the city’s version of the Rio Grande Plan is the most effective way to eliminate barriers, improve public safety, and upgrade our transit infrastructure,” Lenhart said. “I have not seen any alternative plans that can accomplish all of those things at once. The costs, though higher than those of our comparison projects in Denver and Reno, are still worth the indisputable benefits of the Plan.”

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.