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Salt Lake City: A Red State Capital Builds Ambitious Transit

According to Congress for New Urbanism President John Norquist, the Salt Lake City area has the fastest growing rail system in America. And as Streetsblog's Angie Schmitt pointed out last month, "It's the only city in the country building light rail, bus rapid transit, streetcars and commuter rail at the same time."

Since the late 1990s, SLC certainly has embarked on a very ambitious program of transit construction. In 2006, residents voted to invest more and expedite the implementation of the system. This May the city opened its newest light rail line, to the airport, and in December the Sugar House streetcar is scheduled to open.

SLC does have a lot of catching up to do. The region as a whole is still built around the car. In this brief clip, Norquist talks about the lack of transit-oriented development at stops outside the downtown. I also don't love the gigantic widths of neighborhood streets, which I mentioned in my write up of exploring the city while trying out bike-share. But as Norquist points out, these are all opportunities to transform things for the better.

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  • http://www.cyclelicio.us/ Cyclelicious

    Republican Senator Bob Bennett from Utah pushed transit funding through for his state in spite of political opposition from his party and at the grass roots within the state. After it opened, though, ridership far exceeded expectations, and state residents view the state's light rail in a positive light.

    Bennett is strongly conservative and well liked among Utah voters, but the Tea Party decided Bennett isn't conservative enough and derailed this senior politician's primary bid for re-election in 2010. The Tea Party candidate, Mike Lee, now represents Utah along with long time Senator Orrin Hatch. Lee consistently votes against any transportation program that isn't a highway spending project.

  • Spike

    Utah's senators extracted an enormous amount of federal funding for highways and transit before (and after) the Olympics. The highway system is huge and mostly empty by NY standards. Typical red state behavior- demand (and get) a lot of money from the feds for highways, then vote against Amtrak as a waste of money,

  • Nate Briggs

    As a resident of Salt Lake, and a long-time bicycle commuter, here are some random remarks:

    - At the time the first light rail line was built, I thought it was a huge boondoogle, and would run empty most of the time. I was wrong about that. It is an elemental part of the city.

    - I am predicting the same fate for the Sugarhouse Trolley ... so we'll see where that goes.

    - The Sugarhouse Trolley is advertised to have a multi-modal trail that connects two other major trails in town. But the Trolley trail would have to traverse an active railroad yard almost a mile wide to make this advertised connection. No one has yet explained how that magically happens.

    - Not "gigantic" streets. Capacious streets. If Salt Lake eventually achieves platinum level as a bicycle city, it will be partially because the street widths are generous enough for everyone. The climate, the easy-to-understand grid system, and the capacious streets make for almost a perfect riding environment.

    -- Nate (SLC)

  • Greg

    I lived and biked there up until 1997 and I sure miss those capacious streets here in suburban Chicago. No buses on Sundays, not so much. (Don't know if that's still the case and I'm too lazy to Google it).

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    Re: "the multi-modal trail..."

    Actually the crossing across the active railroad yard has already been built. When the TRAX line to West Valley was constructed, they had to build a huge bridge across that rail yard. UTA and South Salt Lake were smart enough to add space on the bridge for the future multi-modal trail. If you ride the TRAX Green Line out to West Valley, you can see the extra space on the south side of the bridge.

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    Buses and TRAX now run on Sunday, but only a few routes and the hours of operation are limited. FrontRunner still doesn't run on Sunday yet.

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    I come from a conservative background, but what Senator Mike Lee touts as conservatism is loonacy! It's as if he's not on the same planet! Senator Orrin Hatch was once somewhat moderate, but when the Tea Party ousted Senator Bennett, Senator Hatch got scared and moved from the middle to the far right and now is almost as looney as Senator Lee.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu/ Slow_Factory

    Many people have never been on light rail of any sort - and related, many don't know it's like to cycle safely in town - so these experiences from SLC show how important it is prove things to people. When city leaders visit other cities with good examples, they should also bring a journalist or two along to as objectively as possible show the people back home how good something can be with a familiar person as part of the subject.

    Still, I would like to get numbers on SLC -- for example, what is the current modal split and what is the goal?

    Here is something related about a new tram in Spain and light rail/tram projects all over Europe: http://www.mobility-magazine.com/zaragoza-sets-own-standards/971

  • Nate Briggs

    Mike: If it's going to be the "up and over" option, that's great. But I'm intimate with the route, and with the Green Line, and - without having actually walked the track - I'm not seeing any provision for the kind of arrangement you're describing. The UTA said that's what they were going to do. But I'm not sure they've done it.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I believe they recently had some articles in SLC dailies with numbers. There is always their website too, as a resource. There have been some critics saying the ridership is too low. BUT, that is an awfully ignorant way to look at things. After all, the amount of transit they have put in the ground in the last few years is mind blowing.

    Before the local critics jump on it, they should adopt a wait and see attitude for a couple of years. You are right, the number of people who have sampled it yet has still got to be on the very low side. It takes time for people to shift and develop new patterns. And to say - "Hey, this light rail commute is pretty cool and I can do work while on it!" etc etc.

    I just imagine our New Bike Share in NYC. If you look at the numbers after one week (which were pretty good) and compared them to now, well we are well over double the number of members and it just keeps going up. It takes some time once the bones are in.

  • Eric

    I've heard it suggested that Republicans support transit in Utah (and Denver) because few African-Americans live in those areas, so Republican voters are not paranoid about criminals taking transit into their neighborhoods in order to commit crimes. (Not saying this is a legitimate reason anywhere, but elsewhere Republicans do worry about it)

  • Coolebra

    Air pollution in SLC is abysmal, with area physicians having declared a health emergency over linger air quality problems - no pun intended. This from NYT February 2013 coverage:

    "For the last few years, the area has been grappling with one of the nation’s most vexing pollution problems, where atmospheric inversions during the winter months lead to a thick fog of dirty air cloaking the region . . . Salt Lake County has experienced 22 days this winter in which pollution levels exceeded federal air quality standards, compared with just one last year."

    An ambitious alternative transportation plan is critical to supporting an economy and culture very strongly linked to the outdoors.

    It isn't a red/blue question, but rather a survival question. It is a good example of conservative-minded support for transit, of course.

  • Eric

    But is there good architecture and fine grained development that's going to make these now connected places walkable on their own by nature?

  • BBB

    As someone who lives in Sandy.
    Land use.

    They have a house mixed right in with industrial complexes, then another plot over horses and goats.

    You can have all the transit you want, but you still need a bike to get anywhere. As walking is horrible any where in the city.

    It reminds me of Phoenix and or Las Vegas. (with hills)

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    It's a huge problem. Unfortunately the Utah Legislature is refusing to take a leadership role in addressing our air quality problem. I expressed my frustrations regarding this in a blog post:

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    That's a good issue to bring up. Aside from downtown, most of the rail stations feature park and ride lots with not a whole lot nearby. Fortunately, there is a big push to create TODs around transit stations. It's going to be a slow process though.

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    Actually, the transit-crime issue still comes up often in public meetings in Utah. I'm bewildered by it and don't really understand why some people think that someone is going to break into their home, steal their TV, and then use a train as the getaway vehicle.

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    Thanks Clarence!

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    Nate: Attached are two sections of an aerial photo taken last summer. The future multi-modal trail is about 10 feet wide on the south side of UTA's right of way and runs the entire length of the bridge spanning the Roper Yard -- except for the bridge crossing 600 West, although there are footings in place for a future pedestrian bridge. No fences to separate the tracks from the trail have been built yet though.

  • davistrain

    No fence between the trail and the track? Shouldn't make any difference. The trains aren't going suddenly swerve over and hit a cyclist or pedestrian, and MOST people have enough sense to stay out of the path of a train.

  • davistrain

    The note that Mr. Eckerson "never had a driver's license and never will" ties in with his New York location. Non-drivers are fairly common in New York, one of the few places in the US where not having a car is not a major inconvenience.

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    Unfortunately, we have to put up fences along rail lines for those that don't have enough sense to stay out of the path of trains. Regrettably, this thwarts natural selection. 😉 LOL

  • paulkimo

    All one has to do is ride TRAX out to Daybreak on any given evening and wonder how long UTA can sustain operating empty trains without some kind of significant increase in the sales tax revenue. Don't get me wrong, the trains are packed during the commute hours and when the university is in session but other times like weekends and evening hours, ridership is pretty bleak.
    I also share some skepticism regarding the streetcar line to Sugarhouse. The line was hastily put together to qualify for TIGER funding and no real thought was given to try and create a streetcar network that can connect various places together. Some folks are thinking about that now while others just want to continue to make these incremental additions without really knowing how it fits into the bigger picture. The route may also pick up new riders from the homes adjacent to the stations who would not want to go to 21st Street and catch a bus but that will just be a few hundred riders at best. I suspect the ridership won't be that much different from the current bus route 21. The bike trail though will be a welcome addition.
    Finally, in order for there to be any change in air quality, people will have to change their attitudes about the automobile. Too much of what is being suggested is voluntary and no one would be willing to make significant changes to their lifestyle. But what do you think the response would be if the EPA did declare this area a non-attainment area and mandate certain things be done? Yes, there are efforts now to provide free passes to use UTA and even have fare free days but I'd like to see if any studies have been done in other places to see how effective these efforts have been to improving air quality over the long haul and how it really changed people's habits.
    Yes, UTA has done a lot for this region in the last 15 years but it still has a long way to go...

  • paulkimo

    I also wanted to post this picture too to support the reason why we need fences between trails and rails. The lack of respect for tracks and private right-of-way is just disgusting. Even if there are no trains there yet, it is still a construction zone.

  • http://CountingPantographs.org/ Mike Christensen

    I did a tour of the construction zone back in May. We had to wear hard hats and orange vests and attend a safety briefing prior to the tour.

    At any rate, it shows that there's a demand for the trail.

  • Neocon

    I say bravo to SLC for having the vision and guts to push forward with these projects. It takes time to get used to but after awhile getting around by train/light rail is a pleasant and relaxing experience.

    I live in the SF Bay Area with a population of over 8 million people. We have BART (the main subway), MUNI (San Francisco), VLA (Silicon Valley), CalTrain (peninsula), ACE (Central Valley and Tri-Valley into Silicon Valley), and believe it or not Amtrak! Couple all of these systems with the bus lines and they are actually quite efficient once you figure out how everything works. Sadly, despite all of these mass transit systems that move millions of people per day the freeways are still packed! However, the region would come to a standstill without them. Even my hometown of Albuquerque has train service between Santa Fe/ABQ and it's southern suburbs... (if they can do it :) )

    There will always be naysayers with your new train systems. Hopefully it will not become a red vs blue type argument. That would be a shame. I look forward to taking a ride on one of your new trains when I visit again. Especially if you now have service from the airport into the city.

  • Garrett (ctylem)

    You make the situation sound more dire than it really is. Light rail is already UTA's most cost-effective service, so I doubt that it's unduly consuming resources as you state. More importantly, it's important to consider that this line opened nineteen years before originally planned. The Red Line extension to Daybreak runs through a lot of land that is yet to be developed. Heck, Daybreak alone has another 20,000 homes to add before it's fully built-out. A TOD is planned at the Jordan Valley station. In short, once that part of the valley is more developed ridership will pick up.

    Really, it's akin to building a roadway years before it's used at its full capacity. It's smart planning.

    Regarding Sugar House: I have the same doubts. Besides its termini, Central Pointe TRAX and Sugar House CBD, there is very little ridership potential. If I'm traveling from Daybreak to a business at 900 E 2100 S, why would I transfer from TRAX to the streetcar when the 21 gets me right there? Speaking with UTA planners, they have the selfsame thoughts. However, once the streetcar is extended north on 1100 East I see ridership increasing.

  • Coolebra

    I chose not to pursue an employment opportunity in SLC due to air quality in the winter, especially. Similarly, I wouldn't live in Long Beach, CA, or other similar areas on the "notoriously poor air quality" list for the same reason.

    SLC should keep pursuing transit and alternative transportation aggressively.

  • Coolebra

    Transit crime is a red herring. The threat is over-stated and the dangers of driving are quantifiably more dangerous by a wide margin.

  • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

    The Sugar House streetcar project seems really interesting after seeing it in person. It is not in existing street right-of-way as most new streetcar projects are, and it includes the trail component highlighted in this video. Once complete, it should really add a lot of value to the surrounding neighborhoods.

  • Bliss

    Great to hear about SLC's progress, but the claim that it's the only city building light rail, brt, commuter rail, and streetcars is not true. Los Angeles has been (and is continuing) to do so as well, and has built a larger system. plus heavy rail / subway.

    True, it's a larger metro area but the claims about SLC being the only and/or building the most are false. That said, other cities should still emulate their great behavior!

  • Transit

    This article paints a different picture. It appears that ridership is down due to cutting bus service in order to operate the trains. Also, no one has brought up the fact that the fares are amongst the highest in the nation.

  • Garrett (ctylem)

    That article ignores the fact that ridership increased exponentially the year before. Also, the latest APTA report shows a slight increase in ridership.

    The high fare is very unfortunate, but the service area is huge (1600 square miles).

  • tongku04


  • Ted Percival

    Here's a street in Barcelona. Hard to believe that it has 4 traffic lanes, 2 bus/taxi lanes and a generous pedestrian area in addition to this cycle path & motorcycle parking - all within the road reserve.

  • Guest

    Perhaps rather than pointing that these people and chastising them, you should see it as a need the city should fulfill. Clearly they need to get somewhere and they see this as the best way to get there. Might be a great place to study and see of many others are doing the same.

  • John Harshbarger

    Perhaps rather than pointing at these people and chastising them, you
    should see it as a need the city should fulfill. Clearly they need to
    get somewhere and they see this as the best way to get there. Might be a
    great place to study and see of many others are doing the same.