Why isn’t Utah Transit Authority supporting the Rio Grande Plan?

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There’s little doubt that the Rio Grande Plan is getting traction.

Supporters held a packed-house “Bury the Rails” event in late January that attracted both elected and administration officials and was widely covered in local media.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall gave it a shout in this year’s State of the City speech that same week.

And in late February, the Feds awarded the City nearly $2 million toward a $3.7 million project aimed at addressing the divides caused by the north-south rail and Interstate highway corridor that slices the city in two.

City transportation planners wrote in their successful proposal to USDOT, “The east-west divide is not only a cultural, economic, racial, and psychological barrier. It also has a documented track record of safety concerns.”

Courtesy SLC Transportation Division.

Focused on lowering the barriers caused by rail crossings and interstate ramps from 600 North to 2100 South, the grant proposal notes that “The City is already listening to ideas from the community such as the Rio Grande Plan and is open to other big-vision ideas that may have been overlooked by technical staff.”

The Rio Grande Plan (RGP) undergrounds trains from South Temple to 900 South (eliminating all but one at-grade train crossing in the area), shortens or eliminates Interstate off-ramps, and opens up over 75 acres in the Depot District and Granary for development – while restoring the Rio Grande Depot as a transit hub.

So why isn’t the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) interested in the RGP? We talked to Carlton Christensen, Chair of the UTA Board, former Director of Regional Development for Salt Lake County and (four-term) Salt Lake City Council Member from District 1, to find out.

We also consulted former SLC Mayor Ralph Becker, whose administration (2008-16) oversaw unprecedented rail expansion in the city, getting his thoughts on UTA’s foot-dragging on the Rio Grande Plan.

UTA’s got office building plans and they’re not backing down

Carlton Christensen has made apparent his lack of enthusiasm for the RGP since the idea was presented to him over a year ago, the plan’s authors told us.

Building Salt Lake has been covering – and advocating for – the Rio Grande Plan. We also reported on the transit authority’s intention to redevelop the northern end of its Salt Lake Central station, at 600 West between 300 and 200 South.

Those plans include a new office tower to house UTA employees and administrators, incorporating an enhanced transit center for FrontRunner, Trax, and bus passengers.

We at Building Salt Lake are exasperated, along with other city-builders, at UTA’s short-sightedness and lack of design sense. Multiple urban planning and design perspectives seem to merge in the Rio Grande Plan. It will also serve economic growth.

Photo by Luke Garrott.

Reviving and enhancing an historical train station and moving FrontRunner, Trax, and buses closer to Downtown at the Rio Grande Terminal – while removing railroad tracks and highway offramps from an area immediately adjacent to Downtown, opening up over 75 acres for mixed-use development – is likely to have immense appeal across multiple sectors of the economy and community.

Yet, in discussions about the RGP, UTA is emerging as the stick in the mud.

Christensen didn’t deny that he has voiced negative opinions about numerous aspects of the RGP, but insisted “I’m not going to be out there with a protest sign saying ‘No Rio Grande Plan’.”

Yet he shrugs off the implications of UTA re-investing in its not-so-Central Station for the short-term. The Rio Grande Plan “doesn’t have an effect on us, as far as our five-year capital plan goes. We’re building our building.”

Feasibility

Christensen’s critiques of the RGP in our conversation revolved around feasibility, timing, priorities, and fairness.

His first comments focused on engineering issues. He has doubts about the proposed train box:

– Redoing complex utilities on the north end of the RGP project at South Temple, at the Folsom Trail at the back of Gateway.

– The ability for heavy rail to change grade in order to enter the train box. Since that slope change must be 1% or less, “You’re talking about extending [the train box] a lot further to the north and south” than what the plan illustrates.

– Ground water is not very deep.

This video by the RGP’s authors refutes some of those concerns. Christensen himself admits “If you’re an engineer, it’s all possible.” The bigger problem, he emphasizes, is financial feasibility.

“If you’re trying to fund it, it’s a price tag that is certainly well beyond any budget that we have.”

His experience on the SLC Redevelopment Agency Board and the County Development Office tell him that TIF and federal grants are unlikely to make up the difference.

Timing and UTA’s other priorities

UTA’s five-year strategic plan prioritizes moving administrators and employees out of its current office HQ at 669 W. 200 South. The structure, built for the EIMCO company in 1965, isn’t safe in a major seismic event, UTA has been pointing out.

That new corporate office building will be sited at the northwest corner of 300 South and 600 West, and “includes a new transit center for bus and rail that’s integrated into the facility so that it’s truly transit-focused,” Christensen says.

In addition, he revealed that the Agency is likely to prioritize other projects when applying to the federal government for funds.

“We’ve dealt with enough competitive grants here [at UTA] that it would be a very heavy lift in contrast to competing needs for the region, which could potentially be extension of FrontRunner to the north and the south, more strategic double-tracking, and transit service to fast-growing areas along the Wasatch Front who currently don’t have or have very limited service.”

Those priorities are likely shaped by increased control by state government over UTA. In 2017, the legislature dissolved the previous 16-member board made up of appointees largely from its service area municipalities, plus a minority from the state legislature and administration.

A three-person board, appointed by the governor, took its place.

In 2022 the state legislature moved all UTA construction projects from Agency control to the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT).

When pressed about barriers to UTA’s participation in a hypothetical situation where all funding was found, Christensen emphasized timing. The Rio Grande Plan resides on a time horizon too distant for the agency. “You’d have to do a preliminary study and then probably an EIS [Environmental Impact Study], which could take two to three years. So you’re five to ten years out before you could do anything. We’re not going to wait for ten years to do something like that.”

Fairness

Christensen was part of the Salt Lake City Council when the City made its pivotal decisions on the future of transit.

“When I was on the council in 1998, we made the decision to cite Central Station on 600 West [Editor’s note: then called the Intermodal Hub, not Central Station]. Whether those were good decisions or bad decisions, and that can be debated, those decisions were made decades ago. That’s why I just have reservations, is maybe the best way to phrase it.”

He also expresses concern about sunk investments in the Depot District area.

Is it fair to move the tracks when “There are people who have put in hundreds of millions of dollars investing in the current alignment [of rail], expecting that alignment to be permanent?” he asks.

Former Mayor Ralph Becker responds

Ralph Becker, who until last July was leading the Central Wasatch Commission, advanced significant urbanist housing and transportation reforms at city hall from 2008-16.

Under Becker, the city was a partner in building two new rail lines and the protagonist in writing new formed-based zoning code. Both the North Temple Boulevard transit corridor to the airport and the Sugarhouse streetcar and greenway, now called the S-Line, were priorities of his administration.

Yet the applications for the large chunks of federal funding that made the projects possible were headlined by UTA.

Asked why he thought Carlton Christensen and the UTA Board weren’t supporting the Rio Grande Plan, Becker expressed doubts about the level of their initiative.

“I have tremendous respect for Carlton. But their standard response is always ‘We don’t have enough money to provide bus service, so we’re focusing on that’.”

Becker told us the S-Line and North Temple “received well over $100 million” from the federal government. “We rebuilt the North Temple viaduct, transformed North Temple which was one of the worst arterials in the city, and put in all those amenities.”

He’s not impressed with the lack of leadership from UTA to plan and fund transit improvements. But not surprised, given the recent changes in its governance structure, he noted.

“There is so much money out there for transportation and rail projects right now, between the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Bill. There are major projects going on all over the country; and we’re not pursuing any of it – with the exception of Frontrunner. We built this incredible backbone of a system and we’re not fleshing it out.”

Becker mentioned that he still receives the briefing emails from the city’s lobbyists in Washington, DC, who report “literally dozens of opportunities coming up every month. I don’t understand it.”

What’s next?

Salt Lake City’s Connected Communities $3.7 million initiative will conduct “a comprehensive big picture analysis and prioritization of solutions to the core of the east-west divide through transportation infrastructure changes that foster connectivity and cohesion.”

Deliverables are defined as “conceptual designs and construction cost estimates for preferred and highest priority approaches with focus on sustainable transportation modes — walking, bicycling, rolling, and transit.”

The plan promises robust community engagement as well as technical advice from a team that includes planners from UTA. Yet the leadership teams at the City and UTA remain disconnected.

On the prospect of the Rio Grande Plan reaching fruition, Christensen notes: “If the City and whoever can come up with all the funding that they need and come to us at that point, that would be a different conversation.”

Email Luke Garrott

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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.