Will Salt Lake Heal its Historic East-West Divide, or Exacerbate it?

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Earlier this year, the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation introduced the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods (RCN) pilot program with the intent to provide funding for cities to address the needs of communities that are cut off from opportunity and unfairly burdened by past inequitable infrastructure decisions. 

This means reconnecting communities by removing, retrofitting, or mitigating highways or other transportation facilities that create barriers to community connectivity or economic development. 

And in a capital city with both an interstate and train tracks that both act as divides and disruptors to daily life, there was much to dig into.

In February, 45 projects across the country received a total of $185 million in grant funding in the program’s first round. Salt Lake City got $1,970,000  for its study: “Planning Critical Connections: Healing Salt Lake City’s East-West Divide”.

It’s no secret that despite recent efforts, ‘East of I-15’ Salt Lake remains a different place than ‘West of I-15’ Salt Lake. But sadly, having a multi-billion-dollar freeway bisecting our city is not unique. 

Federal highway policy in the mid-20th century favored routes where land costs were cheapest and political resistance was weakest, often constructing highways through low-income and minority communities. USDOT estimates that across the nation, at least 1 million people were displaced in the development of the interstate highway system. Highways destroyed once densely populated, vibrant, affordable, and accessible communities and left isolated, characterless shells of neighborhoods in their place.

How did Salt Lake get this way in the first place?

Salt Lake’s grant application acknowledges the isolation of the Westside neighborhoods, which began when the transcontinental railroad construction cut them off from the rest of the city in 1870. 

The railroad divided the city racially and economically. In the 1940’s, the Westside was redlined: homes and farms constructed west of the rails were considered undesirable, and the land was often used as a dumping ground.

Highway construction beginning in the 1970s further solidified the separation between the whiter, wealthier East side and the less white, less wealthy, forgotten West side. 

This legacy of disinvestment is still very real today. While East Salt Lake benefits from world class medical facilities, higher education institutions, and decades of economic development initiatives, the Westside is cut off from many employment opportunities, schools, grocery stores, and other amenities. 

We’ve learned recently (but we’re not surprised) that the West neighborhoods also suffer disproportionately from noise and air pollution. Over a quarter of the Westside’s population lives beneath the poverty line, and many families struggle with limited English proficiency. 

While new development has picked up in the Westside in recent years, there has been a lack of outreach and collaboration with the community, leading to distrust in local government from years of feeling unheard during major transportation decisions. 

There is constant anxiety in Westside neighborhoods about being displaced by new residents with higher incomes as the area undergoes redevelopment. 

The East-West disparity in traffic safety is also hard to ignore. Only 36% of Salt Lake’s population lives on the West Side, but they experience 77% of traffic-related fatalities. 

People are discouraged from walking and biking because the roads are not designed to accommodate anything but increasingly fast and heavy automobile traffic. There’s also the issue of environmental justice needs of the Westside as they deal with the brunt of the effects of climate change (think: minimal tree canopy, urban heat island effect, desertification, toxic dust clouds, etc.).

Ok the problem is clear. Now what will Salt Lake do with the RCN grant?

The key thing to remember is that this is a planning grant, meaning that the money is intended to fund the analysis of different interventions, not necessarily the implementation. The implementation phase will come after the initial planning phase and the combined budgeted is $3,740,000.

The grant application describes the analysis phase this way: 

“A professional planning team will develop a full understanding of historic and current policies and transportation decisions to provide the context for past disinvestment. Mapping tools, data sets, and an equity index will advance environmental justice; consider access and mobility; and address neighborhood change concerns in the process.” 

The city also promises to facilitate extensive community engagement in the planning process through a Community Advisory Committee, which will create a community participation plan wherein constituents receive a stipend as compensation for their participation. 

What ideas could we see come out of this?

The short answer? We don’t know yet. But this grant will provide the opportunity to explore some big and exciting ideas that Salt Lakers have been begging for. 

One such idea generating a lot of buzz is the Rio Grande Plan. In case you missed it, this plan proposes eliminating much of the hostile infrastructure between North Temple and 900 South by building a train box. This would create opportunities for affordable housing and greenspace while bringing life back into the area around The Gateway and Pioneer Park.

If that doesn’t excite you, here’s a short list of projects from other recent plans that could also be on the table. These projects are either already planned or still in ideation.

From Westside Transportation Equity Study (2021)

Planned Projects

  • 400 SOUTH VIADUCT BIKEWAY: Salt Lake City is planning a two-way protected bicycle facility on the 400 South viaduct that bridges the rail tracks and crosses I-15, creating a key connection from the Westside to downtown.
  • 900 WEST/ CALIFORNIA PROTECTED INTERSECTION: This project planned by Salt Lake City will increase safety for active travelers at a key location accessing schools and community resources.
  • 600 NORTH MOBILITY, SAFETY & TRANSIT IMPROVEMENTS: This project has the potential to transform this corridor with multimodal infrastructure and increase neighborhood pride.
  • 300 NORTH PEDESTRIAN OVERPASS: Salt Lake City is planning a pedestrian overpass of the rail tracks at 300 North, creating a key barrier crossing to West High/ downtown.

From “Connect SLC” – Transportation Master Plan update (still in progress)

Potential Ideas

  • Bury I-15: Replace the aging I-15 viaduct with a cut-and-cover tunnel in Central Salt Lake City Extent could stretch from north of 600 N to south of Ballpark Create acres of space for housing, commercial uses, public services, parks, and public space. 
  • Reconsider freeway ramps: Reconstruct the 600 N interchange to be a safe and viable east-to-west crossing for all modes. Rebuild 500 S and 600 S to reduce intrusion and impact on the city. Reconsider the 500 S / 600 S interchange to reconnect the street grid over/under the highway and tracks while providing urban-scale freeway access. Remove the 900 S ramp to open land for public uses and development in the Ballpark/Central 9th neighborhood where the ramps consume 8+ acres.
  • Break the berm: Add multimodal crossings between 900 S-1300 S, 1300 S–1700 S, and 1700 S–2100 S. Use highway elevation and stub streets to create new connections. Focus on creating safe, well-lit crossings for people walking, rolling, and bicycling. Create crossings that aren’t influenced by high-speed traffic and freeway ramps.

These are really cool, but is this all too good to be true?

There seems to be a lot of hype around the potential of addressing historic inequities. Salt Lake’s grant application was accompanied by letters of support from no less than 47 different Salt Lake based organizations (such as Westside Coalition, NeighborWorks, and The Downtown Alliance, to name a few) as well as 14 pages of public comments offering support and suggestions on healing the divide. Yet this proposal comes at an interesting and controversial time for transportation in this city. 

While I don’t want to diminish this momentum, putting the RCN initiative in the context of Salt Lake’s current situation is disheartening at best. 

The budget to ‘heal the divide’ is under four million dollars, half of which is federal grant money. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that Utah is simultaneously spending at least $3.7 billion to widen the very obstruction causing the problem (for those who are bad at math, the RCN budget is about a tenth of one percent of the price tag of adding a lane to I-15). 

It’s difficult to say we’re looking at a greener and more equitable future that offers alternatives to driving when our spending says we will continue driving and displacing at all costs. And now we have a clearer picture than ever of exactly what those costs are and who pays them. 

There is no timeline yet on the RCN initiative. But this feels like a pivotal decision point in determining the priorities of Salt Lake’s planning and transportation going forward. 

On one hand, it is encouraging to think that leaders are considering past inequities as a map to inform the future, and the best-case scenario is if the city can back this up with some big, bold ideas that Salt Lakers have been craving for a very long time. 

On the other hand, we cannot have it both ways. It’s just not feasible or genuine to talk about ‘healing the divide’ as the plan to widen I-15 goes forward. We cannot keep doing what we’ve always done (i.e.: prioritize cars over people and make it more difficult and more dangerous for residents to get around) and expect to have safe and livable communities. Will the Salt Lake of the future be a superhighway, or a place for people? Only time will tell.

(Read the rest of Salt Lake’s RCN grant application here

Alicia Seeley is a professional urban planner living and working in Salt Lake City.

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