Two Light Rail Extensions for Salt Lake, with More on the Way

» An extensive network of rail and bus corridors spreads out across the Wasatch Front.

Much thanks to federal spending, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area practically doubled the size of its TRAX light rail network this weekend, adding two extensions a year early and 20% under budget. Though estimates predict relatively modest ridership on the new lines, the routes provide the city and its suburbs one of the most comprehensive transit systems in the country, with frequent bus and rail corridors spread out in a grid across the immediate urban core.

And with two other light rail extensions, a commuter rail line, a streetcar, and a series of bus rapid transit corridors on the way, the region is far from finished.

After passing a local sales tax increase in 2006 for the UTA transit agency’s $2 billion Frontlines 2015 program, millions of dollars flowed in from Washington as the government agreed to fund 80% of the new Mid-Jordan extension through a New Start grant as part of a significant downpayment on system expansion. (For Frontlines 2015, federal funds to three lines now account for $1.04 billion in total, up from $500 million as originally planned.) In combination with the West Valley line, paid for mostly with local funds, UTA officials suggested that this weekend’s was the largest two-route rail opening in a single day in American history.

Light rail routes in the region have been re-configured into three colored corridors — the Green, Red, and Blue Lines.

In addition to the pre-existing 15.8-mile route from downtown Salt Lake to Sandy (which opened in 1999) and the 3.8-mile corridor to the University of Utah (which began operations in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics there), the 10.6-mile, $535 million Mid-Jordan route extends southwest from Fashion Place to a major development at Daybreak and the 5.1-mile, $370 million West Valley line runs from Central Pointe to West Valley Central Station. The 3.5-mile extension south from Sandy to Draper (receiving a 60% commitment from Washington), the 6-mile link to the airport, and the 44-mile FrontRunner South commuter rail route to Provo (getting 80% of its funding from the feds) are other parts of the program and are under construction, ready to be open by 2013 and 2014.

The region, with about 1.2 million inhabitants, now has as much light rail — 35 miles of it — as far larger metropolitan areas like Denver. Total TRAX ridership is expected to reach 58,000 a day by the end of this year, up from 43,000 today; ridership could exceed 100,000 daily by 2030.

These extensions, in addition to the Sugar House streetcar half-funded by a federal TIGER II grant and the BRT routes, are being completed fifteen years ahead of what was predicted to be feasible by the region’s original long-term plans laid out in the early 2000s. UTA’s 2003 purchase of the rail corridors along which most of the routes run was assumed to provide for expansion needs up to 2030 or 2040, but local entrepreneurship and skilled application of federal dollars pushed up construction.

Now the area will have to focus on maintaining frequent service. A cut of bus operations by 10% to coincide with the opening of the rail lines and more efficiently utilize the gridded transit network may make sense from an operations standpoint, but it is an ominous sign of tighter budgets to come.

Compared to light rail projects around the country, the $50.5 million and $72.5 million per mile spent on the Mid-Jordan and West Valley lines, respectively, is limited. They are on the low end compared to similar projects currently under construction in Portland ($204 million/mile), Houston ($145 million/mile), and the Twin Cities ($87 million/mile). But Salt Lake had the advantage of building its rail lines along existing corridors, limiting right-of-way purchase costs. In addition, it has constructed most of its projects in the midst of a recession that has hit the construction industry particularly hard, making it possible to contract out the building of the tracks and stations at comparatively low prices.

Salt Lake’s lines are exciting, certainly, especially as they are being implemented in coordination with the bus connections. The BRT route with dedicated lanes completed along 3500 South last year has been quite successful in increasing ridership, doubling the number of daily passengers even before full improvements were completed. The new light rail line to West Valley Central will provide direct connections to that route.

Overall, 90% of all bus routes in the region are being reconfigured to better match the new rail service in order to guarantee best-possible utilization of the significant investment made in rail.

Moreover, Utah seems to have taken strongly to the idea of transit-oriented development: A massive new mixed-use project called Daybreak has been constructed southwest of the city, directly along the final two stations of the Mid-Jordan extension.The developers were so convinced of the value of light rail that they agreed to provide $13 million in property and cash to the UTA to speed the line’s construction. Inhabitants of the area who work downtown may find the transit offering appealing: The reliable 42-minute trip time offered between it and Salt Lake’s courthouse is only about five minutes slower than a car trip on uncongested roads. As Jeff Wood has noted, it will be interesting to examine commuting trends for people who live here to see whether light rail is a useful tool or simply an exciting accessory to what is otherwise a standard suburban subdivision.

Daybreak is not the only place where new development is expected to follow construction of light rail: West Valley City, for instance, expects to see a “string of pearls” in new buildings constructed near its new rail stops.

The successful use of locally raised taxes and developer contributions in Salt Lake City’s transit expansion is to be lauded, but the massive involvement of the federal government in the funding process cannot be overlooked; after all, Washington has spent more than a billion dollars aiding this city to become more transit friendly in the last decade. Salt Lake would not have been able to do nearly as much with a government that pulled back. We may want other cities to follow in this city’s footsteps, but assuming we can do so with fewer federal dollars seems completely unrealistic.

36 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Danny

    I was under the impression that the extension costs quoted were including the rolling stock, which would mean that the construction costs were even lower. Does anybody know where to confirm this?

    I have been a big fan of TRAX for a long time, but I was very disappointed to see they were cutting bus operations to fund the line. Hopefully they will see a bigger than expected increase in ridership and can offset the new costs.

    • Beta Magellan

      Cost/mile statistics almost always include things like rolling stock, plus whatever else was needed for the line (e. g. expansion to maintenance facilities). The only case where they wouldn’t include rolling stock would be if the extension didn’t need any.

  • Tom West

    Red line and Green line… is no-one in Salt Lake City colour-blind?

    • Beta Magellan

      Don’t know if there’s any meaning to the line, but having red and green lines is very common. In large part it’s just because of the way we’re wired—languages with only three color terms will use a dark-cool term, light-warm term, and red, with four they’ll typically add either green or yellow. Yellow generally doesn’t stand out enough on maps, so it makes sense to go with green (blue only comes into play if languages have six or more color terms).

      If you have enough lines, you’re going to run into some kind of color-blindness issues anyway, so I guess SLC’s planners thought it wasn’t a big enough deal to avoid it.

      • alurin

        @Beta: The most common form of color-blindness is red-green color blindness, so you would want to avoid relying solely on the red/green contrast. You’re right that with enough lines, you can’t really avoid color-blindness problems, but surely it makes sense to start off with two colors besides red and green.

  • Progressive Capitalist

    What I see is a lot of Green spent in Red-state cities.

    I wonder how voters in Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Salt Lake City will feel about the House cutting the New Starts program.

    • Beta Magellan

      Well, cities in red states aren’t necessarily red (Houston definitely comes to mind). And at local and state levels, the politics of transit are much more mixed—state and local transit spending’s seen as something that provides concrete local benefits, whereas federal spending’s big, abstracted, and goes to other people—it’s easier to support government investment when you personally see a return on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of the same people who vote for local sales-tax increases to pay for transit also vote for anti-transit politicians.

      (And I’d also say that the SLC region strikes me as being something of a unique case, since its comparative homogeneity seems to make transit spending less of a political issue, or at least it appears that way from afar.)

  • Matt

    The Minneapolis metro has had a dedicated transit improvement sales tax for over 3 years now, and all we have to show for it is a single line under construction. I guess it pays to elect Republicans????

    • Tim E

      I wouldn’t fret too much. Construction of the University Lightrail line from Downtown St. Paul to Downtown Minneapolis will start soon. They are already in planning and preliminary stage for the the Southwest Lightrail line to Eden Prairie.

      Were Twin Cities/Duluth lost out will be intercity rail service between the two cities that would have sufficed as the next Twin Cities commuter line.

      • imperator3733

        Construction on the Central Corridor has already started. A few blocks of track have been laid in downtown St. Paul, and four of the eastbound platforms are about half done.

        In addition to the Southwest Corridor, they have also done some early planning for the Bottineau Corridor (heading northwest out of Minneapolis). Although it would be nice if the Twin Cities had more lines under construction, we’re not doing horribly.

      • Brian Weber

        you must be blind…..central corridor has been uc for over 1 yr now

  • Jacob Mason

    Perhaps the best example of a conservative city that has embraced transit is Calgary, often called the Texas of Canada, due to the booming oil industry and conservative politics there. The C-train system alone boasts daily ridership of 267,000 which a place like Salt Lake City can only dream of. With a population just under 1 million (compared to 1.1 million for Salt Lake City), the usage rates are far higher in Calgary.

  • Nick Carney

    Salt Lake City’s progress is impressive, but just have to rep my hometown here and say that although Denver only has 39 miles of light rail at the moment, it’s in the process of adding 122 more, which will still put it far ahead in terms of LRT miles. Just sayin’.

    I know that’s really besides the point of the post, just had to stick up for Denver out of city pride/rivalry with SLC.

    • Nick, just you wait until our UTEs kick the Buff’s butts! And don’t forget that our 83 miles of Commuter Rail will be in full swing come 2014! ;-)

    • Allen

      Nick, baring something drastic Fastracks isn’t going to produce more than 40 – 60 miles of rail. The money isn’t there and it doesn’t seem likely that they’re going to be able to get it anytime soon.

  • Federico

    One of Yonah’s earlier posts (regarding the unclear relationship between federal share of project funding and projected ridership) also pointed out that SLC has received relatively high federal levels of commitment. Why is this, especially given that the ridership is not remarkable?

  • Tcmetro

    One of the main obsticles to building transit ridership is the limited hours and frequency of night and Sunday service. The few SLC buses that run later than 6 pm do so once an hour and end around 9 or 10. The Sunday service is hourly from 9-10ish in the morning until about 6 in the afternoon. Daytime frequency appears to be fairly decent, with a slew of routes running every 15 minutes.

    It’s nice to see SLC make large commitments to rail transit expansion, but improving the bus network will allow more people to access the system. While funds may not be available to expand service right now, it should be the #1 priority for future transit enhancements.

    • calwatch

      Given the predominantly LDS culture of the Wasatch Front, particularly outside of Salt Lake City proper, I don’t really see this as much of a problem. The service is there where the ridership is, and service does run late enough on weekday and Saturday nights on TRAX, which will become the core route for the carfree by choice. Consider that just 12 years ago, Salt Lake City had no Sunday bus service at all.

      • Danny

        I wouldn’t discount the LDS culture as a whole as being anti-transit. UTA bus service in Provo has been extremely successful in large part due to BYU. TRAX was voted on and passed while the majority of city council members were LDS.

        I would place the blame for low transit use among the LDS more on their tendency for large families, which makes transit more expensive and cars more economical. LDS youth tend to use transit quite a bit once out of the nest.

        • John Bredin

          While I’m not calwatch, I would surmise that his/her reference to LDS culture was not to imply that Mormons are anti-transit but specifically regarding late-night and Sunday service.

        • Wad

          Also factor in how much the Winter Olympics transformed Salt Lake City’s culture.

          The Olympics brought in businesses and populations that don’t always mesh with Mormon practices. Salt Lake City, no doubt, wanted to keep the economic momentum going and take its place on the world stage.

          This meant that a predominantly Mormon city had to adapt to more non-Mormons moving in. Part of it involves the addition of night and Sunday service when there was no perceived need for it before.

          • The Olympics did not transform Salt Lake City’s culture, it merely showed the world how fairly normal Salt Lake City is.

            Salt Lake City has and will always walk the balance of being the hippest place in Utah while being at the same time the capital of the LDS Church. The dynamic between active LDS members and everyone else (50/50) has been getting better with every year since the city was founded.

            Transit is loved by the liberals of Salt Lake City as well as the religious leadership of the LDS Church (there are no power struggles on this issue within the city). Rather, the conflict is very much the same here as it is everywhere else, do we spend more of our energy giving the burbs transit to the City or do we spend more energy improving transit within the city with things like streetcars.

            Keep an eye out for the Sugar House streetcar which will be starting up construction very soon!

  • Brett

    I have ridden this system. It’s a nice system and well ridden by younger people. The trains run late in weekends too. There is not an anti-transit culture there, but the large families do make it tougher to use transit. I know that they would be willing to pass another tax if need be to support and expand the system further.

  • Well done to Salt Lake City for getting this done. I’m impressed that it managed politically to spend all the money and build all the infrastructure that it has; would anyone care to put forward some reasons for that it has?

    I’m sure that it isn’t what everyone would have wanted, that compromises were made, that the bus would have been better at light rail, and that the light rail would have been better as a subway, but they got it done, and that’s what’s important. I wish that more cities could see it that way.

    I don’t know quite how to feel about the federal spending on SLC. On one hand, many places have far more pressing transit needs, affecting larger transit riding constituencies. On the other hand, places like SLC are those with the greatest problems of car dependence the associated environmental degradation, and arguably it makes sense to start working on the slow job of changing that as soon as possible. Certainly, when oil prices continue to increase, SLC is going to have the infrastructure in place to continue functioning economically.

  • Shawn Hill

    I’d add a clarifying note regarding the service population. Though the SLC Metropolitan Statistical Area has a population of 1.1 million, the local transit agency (UTA) serves the entire 110-mile length of the Wasatch Front, the population of which is around 2 million and includes the Ogden-Clearfield, Provo-Orem, as well as the SLC MSAs.

  • In response to Calwatch, I have a serious concern that the UTA reduced bus service by 10% in order to pay for the operation of the new rail lines. Considering that the rail lines for the most part operate in abandoned rail rights of way, there is a significant portion of the population that is not within walking distance of a rail station, particularly on the east side. But considering that there was no Sunday service at all until relatively recently, we should thank God that they provide any service at all.

  • This is a great article and a great website (I’m glad I found it). The overall money spent on the Frontlines 2015 project is much more carried by local funding than it is by Federal Funding. The Federal Government pays for half of everyone’s interstate improvements (they did not pay for half of Frontlines 2015).

  • Ocean Railroader

    This system sounds like it’s doing a lot better then Norfolk’s light rail system in that when they started building it came on line at a decent time and price unlike Norfolk’s which was several years late and 120 million over buget which basicly brought shame to Norfolk VA and left a bad mood and taste in Vriginia Beach’s mouth over light rail and streetcars in general.

    If this transit system can exapland to good places for below national costs they should go for it.

  • Ryan

    By the way, SLC Metro (Wasatch Front) which is served by UTA has closer to 2.5 million residents…not 1.2 as the article indicated.

  • Allen

    “The reliable 42-minute trip time offered between it and Salt Lake’s courthouse is only about five minutes slower than a car trip on uncongested roads. ”

    It’s more than 5 minutes slower. We’re talking about a 30 minute drive on uncongested roads. More so the majority of people living in that area have little need to travel to the courthouse or anywhere else downtown.

  • Great post. I just completed a marketing study of SLC for a real estate development class. I’m very bullish on the SLC. The fact that it has such an extensive light rail system, as well as commuter rail (FrontRunner) is very impress for a young and growing city. There is a solid foundation in place for transit oriented development to occur. The city even has BRT-lite (no elevated stations unfortunately).
    Good jobs, well educated residents, and great overall quality of life with the mountains and lake 20 min away. The city has a lot going for it. Very bike-friendly city as well.

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