» 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.