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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Massive traffic congestion in ... Utah? That’s right. Metropolitan Salt Lake City might not be as large as some other U.S. urban areas, but its geography confines the region’s growth and transportation networks and, therefore, traffic.
Utah’s Wasatch Front, which includes Salt Lake City and a chain of dozens more municipalities, is bounded by mountains to the east, and mountains and lakes to the west. About 80 percent of the state’s population lives in the 120-mile Front, which spans less than 20 miles at its widest point and, at many points, only a few miles.
“From a transportation perspective, we operate like a city four or five times our size. We have massive traffic congestion because of our orientation,” says Mike Allegra, assistant general manager and chief capital development officer for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). “Ever hear of urban growth boundaries? We have natural urban growth boundaries.”
That’s why having an extensive public transit system is becoming all the more important. Good thing UTA is poised to help in that arena.
After it was formed in 1970, UTA began providing bus service and, eventually, paratransit and ski bus service for Wasatch Front residents. In late 1999, the agency launched service on its first light-rail line — a 15-mile Sandy-to-Salt Lake City corridor — in anticipation of the 2002 Winter Olympics and, more important, to provide an alternative to Utah’s mounting highway congestion. A second line soon followed. And earlier this year, UTA added commuter rail to its service offerings when the agency opened the FrontRunner corridor.
Now, UTA is focusing on FrontLines 2015 — “Building 70 miles of rail in seven years,” as the agency says — a program to fast-track four light-rail lines and one commuter-rail corridor included in UTA’s long-range plan. The projects will help the Wasatch Front accommodate increasing travel demand with the region’s “natural growth boundaries.” The lines also will lay more of the groundwork for UTA officials’ ultimate vision: an extensive transit network linking Wasatch Front communities with commuter- and light-rail, streetcar, tram and bus rapid transit service.
“In a 15-year timeframe, we will have gone from a region with no rail public transit to one that will have almost 150 miles of rail transit with great coverage — about 70 percent of our population will be within three miles of a major rail route,” says Allegra. “It’s one of the most aggressive transit investments in this country.”
But the road to rail investment started off as rocky as Utah’s terrain.
UTA first began considering rail service in the mid-1980s, when local leaders were mulling alternatives to highway travel. When the state rebuilt a major highway, UTA proposed to conduct a joint environmental impact statement to study transit options, and the idea for Utah’s first light-rail line was born.
The only thing missing was funding. Agency officials turned to Salt Lake City-area voters, but didn’t find much support.
“We were talking about a technology that, at the time, was very new to Americans,” says UTA General Manager John Inglish. “There were many skeptics and people walking around town with signs [protesting light rail].”
Not surprisingly, a 1992 referendum to fund the $312 million light-rail line through a quarter-cent sales tax failed. But that didn’t stop UTA from building it. At the encouragement of local government leaders, UTA already had acquired right of way from Union Pacific Railroad to build the initial 15-mile TRAX light-rail line from Sandy to downtown Salt Lake City. The Clinton Administration ponied up 65 percent of the line acquisition funds and covered 80 percent of the project costs.
“The Olympics coming along didn’t hurt — it was another good reason for the Administration to support the project,” says Inglish. “So we came up with the 20 percent match, and scrimped and saved knowing that if we built the line, we’d have to find the resources to operate it.”
A good farebox return has helped. The skeptics and naysayers who thought the system wouldn’t attract riders were proven wrong when the line opened in December 1999.
“Everyone said if they knew this was what we were talking about, they’d have voted for it,” says Inglish. “It’s been a huge community success and we haven’t looked back since.”
Two years after launching service on the Sandy/Salt Lake line, UTA opened the $118 million, 2.5-mile University Line, linking downtown Salt Lake City to the University of Utah, where the Olympics opening ceremony was held. And in 2003, the agency completed an $86 million, 1.5-mile University Line extension that connects the school’s stadium and medical center complex.
But even more rail service was needed, local officials believed. In the early 2000s, regional metropolitan planning organization Wasatch Front Regional Council — which comprises local mayors, county commissioners and city council members — updated the region’s long-range transportation plan. The council identified $23.6 billion worth of unfunded transportation needs through 2030, says Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Lane Beattie.
“That was unacceptable. We don’t run businesses that way — businesses have financial plans for the short-term, mid-term and long-term,” he says. “So, we hired some consultants to take a look at what we really needed by 2015 and that’s how a new plan came about, and out of that came UTA’s plan.”
The plan Beattie is referring to? FrontLines 2015, a $2.5 billion program aimed at expanding UTA’s rail offerings. Initially, local leaders supported a measure to be placed on the November 2006 ballot to raise property taxes for program funding since the area counties already had reached their state-mandated sales tax caps.
“When the state legislature got wind of that, they thought a sales tax was more appropriate, so the governor called a special session of the legislature and they voted to raise the cap on the sales tax,” says Inglish.
The legislature’s decision to raise the cap to three-quarters of a cent came just six weeks before Salt Lake and Utah county residents were to vote on the November 2006 ballot measure, meaning UTA and its local partners had to do some quick campaigning.
“There’s a window of opportunity here and if we don’t act now, we limit ourselves economically in the future,” says Beattie. “What will strengthen the workforce, job market, business growth and development? Everything comes back to making sure your infrastructure is in play.”
That’s how the Chamber of Commerce convinced area businesses to step up and help with campaign efforts. The chamber raised $750,000 in private money in 10 days, then had a short timeframe to run the campaign for the rail referendum.
The campaign worked, and it didn’t hurt that residents who were familiar with UTA’s existing light-rail system were anxious for more service. The referendum passed by a large margin in both Salt Lake and Utah counties.
UTA’s been working fast and furious ever since. In April, the agency opened the $611 million, 44-mile Salt Lake City-to-Ogden FrontRunner commuter-rail line, which was funded through a transit referendum approved by Weber and Davis counties in 2000.
In May, the agency broke ground on the Mid-Jordan TRAX line, the first of the five FrontLines corridors. The 10-mile line will branch off from the existing Sandy/Salt Lake light-rail line at the 6400 South TRAX station, then run west and south to South Jordan.
In June, UTA broke ground on the 5.1-mile West Valley TRAX line, which will branch off the Salt Lake/Sandy line at the 2100 South Central Pointe TRAX station and extend to West Valley City.
And last month, the agency launched construction on the FrontLines 2015 commuter-rail line — FrontRunner South — a 45-mile extension of the existing commuter-rail corridor from Salt Lake City to Provo.
Later this year, UTA expects to break ground on the Airport TRAX line, which will link downtown Salt Lake and Salt Lake City International Airport. And early next summer, UTA plans to break ground on the three-mile Draper TRAX line.
Launching so many projects at once requires a significant amount of coordination, planning and money. Completing them on time and on budget requires even more creativity.
To that end, UTA officials proposed a new federal funding approach to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Instead of seeking federal funds for all five lines — and going through the laborious federal New Starts process for each — UTA requested that the FTA provide 80 percent of the funding for two of the projects, which, coincidentally, equates to a 20 percent federal match on all five of the projects, says Allegra.
“We had a pretty good feel for how much federal money we could expect to get for a five-year period for these projects, so rather than put us and the feds through all these steps, why not streamline the whole process?” adds Inglish. “And, amazingly, they agreed to that.”
UTA is streamlining project management, as well.
“We’re managing this like it’s one big project, so we have one safety plan, one quality assurance plan and one project management team,” says Allegra.
That team — which comprises about 350 UTA staffers, engineers, designers, contractors and consultants — is housed in one building, prompting better communication and coordination.
The agency also coordinated its utility relocation plan for all five lines, resulting in one master utility relocation agreement.
“Instead of going to the power company five times, we went to them once,” says Allegra.
And, UTA is saving money by buying in bulk. The agency purchased all the rail and other materials it needed for the five lines at once. Same with rolling stock; in February, UTA purchased 77 light-rail vehicles from Siemens Transportation Systems Inc., the car builder’s largest-ever light-rail vehicle order. The bulk purchases are enabling UTA to build the FrontLines corridors for about $30 million a mile — pretty cheap by today’s standards, says Allegra, adding that UTA’s entire approach to the program is unique to the transit industry.
“I’m unaware of anyone else doing anything this intensive,” he says.
UTA’s “unique and intensive” transit programs won’t end with FrontLines 2015. Now that the projects are under way, the agency — and, perhaps even more so, local government officials, businesses and residents — already are looking at the next round of projects.
“Now, there’s pressure to move more projects from 2030 to 2018,” says Inglish. “There’s a lot of momentum behind us now and there’s pressure for other lines to be built.”
And Inglish knows exactly how he wants to pull it off. Ultimately, he envisions the agency’s commuter- and light-rail network to be connected with a series of streetcar, tram and bus rapid transit lines.
“We’re developing the American version of the European transit system,” he says. “We’ve studied them — UTA is one of only a half-dozen American transit agencies that are a member of [International Association of Public Transport] UITP — and we’re educating ourselves about transit networks and how they work and how the different pieces interface.”
Exactly how all those different pieces are laid out remains to be seen, but at least one thing is certain.
“We’re going to be building and building for many years to come,” says Inglish.