Part 1 of 3: A Less-Convenient Place for Transit Riders in Salt Lake City?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Historically, urban transit served the built environment. The original horse-drawn omnibus lines and the later streetcar lines were designed to take people further than they could conveniently walk, at a faster pace than walking, through existing cities. Most city buses, along with the existing streetcar, light rail, and subway/elevated lines, still serve that function today. There may be a disturbing trend developing lately, as powerful decision-makers appear to be using transit as an excuse to disrupt existing travel patterns and the existing built environment. I will look at two current examples in this commentary, in two very different cities: Salt Lake City and New York City’s Midtown Manhattan. 

That is not to say that transit shied away from influencing, and even expanding, the built environment when it was built early in the past century. Streetcar systems in many cities built out from the historic urban cores and stretched across sparsely populated land, ending in amusement parks built at the end of the line. “Streetcar suburbs” developed as transportation in general and commuting in particular became easier. Today such development is called “transit-oriented development” or “smart growth corridors,” unlike the sprawl that came during the second half of the century. Similarly, the emerging New York subways spurred development in the “outer boroughs” like Queens and Brooklyn.

The cases I will examine are different. In Salt Lake City, transit decision-makers are planning to move a major transfer point, which would change travel patterns in the city. In New York, politicians and large construction firms are pushing for major and expensive development near Penn Station, whether it is needed or not, in light of recent developments in employment and commuting patterns.

This article is the first of a three-part series exploring two case studies where transit managers or other strong interests are planning projects that, while supposedly proposed to benefit transit, could make it less convenient for transit riders to get around in Salt Lake City, and could end up spending billions of taxpayer dollars for construction in New York City, when the necessity for such construction is questionable and which would not do much to improve the existing transit and local rail systems. I will look at the Salt Lake City case in the article, and the New York case in Parts 2 and 3.

Moving the Transit Hub

There are only two cities between Dallas and the West Coast with major rail transit systems: Denver and Salt Lake City. The latter is a diverse city, the state capital and only large city in Utah. Alan S. Drake, a transit and environmental advocate in New Orleans, describes that city as “a blueberry in a cherry pie.” Salt Lake City fits that description, too. Its mayors have consistently been Democrats since the 1970s, even though the rest of the state is deeply Republican. The city also has the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), which runs three TRAX light-rail lines, the S-Line streetcar in the Sugar House neighborhood, and FrontRunner trains north to Ogden and South to Provo. In apparent deference to the Mormon tradition, the FrontRunner trains do not run on Sundays. UTA also runs the local buses in the region.

Travel patterns for the riders on local transit may soon change, if UTA has its way. It recently came to the attention of our editors that UTA has a controversial plan to move its headquarters and hub. That potential move is the subject of a critical article posted on July 11 by Luke Garrott in Building Salt Lake and found at https://www.buildingsaltlake.com/utas-new-office-hq-mixed-use-tower-will-anchor-a-renewed-transit-hub-at-600-west-is-the-rio-grande-plan-dead/. Garrott began by saying: “Utah Transit Authority has initiated procurement for its new headquarters building at 600 West and 300 South in Salt Lake City’s Depot District. The office tower will be mixed-use, and aim to provide FrontRunner, Trax, and bus passengers with a better experience and greater level of service than they are currently accustomed to at Salt Lake Central station” and continued: “Not known for its placemaking prowess, the agency is effectively doubling down on its disastrous urban design decision in the 1990s to locate the station at 600 West, instead of using one of the historic train depots in the vicinity.”

Street numbers radiate outward from Temple Square downtown, location of the Mormon Temple there, the most-important site in the religion. Addresses are identified by a street number and a cardinal direction, and all coordinates are relative to Temple Square. 

The proposed development is part of UTA’s Rio Grande Plan. According to Garrott: “The Rio Grande proposal aims not only to relocate the transit hub to the old station at 300 South and 450 West, but open up hundreds of acres for development in the immediate area with the removal of Union Pacific rail yards, crossings, and multiple Interstate ramps.”

The project was described as “mixed-use tower that incorporates transit passenger amenities and retail space on the ground floor and UTA’s headquarter offices above, with commercial or other private uses in the remainder of the tower” according to the 2019 Central Station Area Plan, prepared for the City’s Redevelopment Authority (RDA) and UTA (and found at https://www.rideuta.com/-/media/Files/Doing-Business/TOD/2020/TOD_StationAreaPlans_SaltLakeCentralandNorthTemple.ashx). 

According to Garrott: “The location’s challenges are manifold. It’s over a half mile from Main St. It’s blocked on the west by Interstate 15, and frequent trains on Union Pacific tracks to the north and west impede the traffic flow.” An illustration in his article, which came from the 2019 plan document, showed the station in a triangle that adjacent to the UP yard tracks that appeared to indicate little development within a neighborhood whose development seemed sparse for a location so close to the downtown core. He speculated: “At 600 West and 300 South, it’s very much still to be determined whether SLCentral, along with the RDA’s Station Center, can become the center of anything.” Then he speculated further: “Except, of course, the center of UTA’s universe – its new administration building.”

Garrott noted: “The new bus facility and transit hub, at the ground floor of the new mixed-use office building, will replace the extant ‘Intermodal Hub,’ designed to mimic the warehouse structures that formerly fronted 600 West. It currently hosts Greyhound and was built with the hope to accommodate retail spaces (which failed) and also Amtrak, which has instead used a modular one-story structure next door to the south as its depot for decades.” He also noted that Greyhound’s lease on the bus terminal is ending soon, and that he expects Greyhound to pick passengers up and drop them off at a street location, as its new owner, Flixbus, does at many of its locations. 

He also raised issues regarding whether the proposed location is optimal, but could not effectively resolve them. He quoted a planner involved with the 2019 plan, saying: “Christian Lenhart, co-author of the plan and an engineer with experience in rail and Interstate projects, responded “UTA’s building might be nice, and adequate by some measures, but nothing can be as impactful for the city or region as a restored train depot with walkable access to Downtown.”

Garrott concluded by saying: “Lenhart’s fears seem well-founded with critics of UTA’s historic treatment of public space and rider amenities.” Then he quoted Lenhart: “‘In reality, it is doubtful that UTA can ever build something as magnificent for Salt Lake City as the Rio Grande Depot,’ he told us. “‘Even the most modern and spacious transit center would be sterile and generic in comparison.’”

A Later “Citizen Proposal”

Ironically, the rendering at Page 4 of the 2019 plan document shows the former Rio Grande Depot at the foreground, in all its historic glory. Garrott did not report this in the above-quoted piece, but he reported earlier on a version of the Rio Grande Plan that would have made use of the historic station at 300 South Rio Grande St. (between 400 West and 500 West on the city’s grid). Perhaps even more ironically, the stations in the two proposals discussed here are less than two blocks apart.

Lenhart, a professional engineer, and urban designer Cameron Blakely devised their own plan and presented it in an 11-page booklet in 2020. It was titled Rio Grande Plan and bore the subheading Redevelopment Proposal Based on the Restoration of Rail Service to the Rio Grande Depot (it can be found at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jwAW8DEc0WZXguTWE1qA6tZJWQkXoRY-/view). The on-line version presents an overview with drawings and reasons for the plan (it can be found at https://riograndeplansaltlakecity.org/?page_id=5). The authors summarized it this way on the web version: “The Rio Grande Plan is the first step towards a more comprehensive downtown rail transit network. Salt Lake City is already well-served by three light rail lines. The Rio Grande Depot is well positioned to fit into the existing routes and help the transit system expand further west to encompass all of downtown. Walkability is also a major draw for the downtown area. Salt Lake Central Station is currently too far from the rest of downtown to be reached on foot alone. The Rio Grande Depot, however, is within walking distance of most major downtown destinations. More people engaging in active transportation will bring greater activity on the streets and sidewalks, bringing much-needed street life back to Salt Lake City.”

In the Overview, Lenhart and Blakely criticized the 2019 plan, saying: “A visitor’s first impressions of downtown Salt Lake City are shaped by crossing a landscape of freight yards, freeway overpasses, railroad crossings, and industrial decay. This crossroads of bridges and train tracks creates a maze of dead-ends and one-way streets that is confusing, uninviting, and which has stifled new developments in a city that is otherwise bursting with growth. In the middle of this labyrinth is UTA’s Salt Lake Central Station, which, despite its name, is merely an open-air transit plaza that is separated from the rest of downtown by what was once a grand passenger station – the beautiful Rio Grande Depot.” Then they presented their alternative: “There is a better way forward. Instead of being a barrier to development, the Rio Grande Depot can become one of Salt Lake City’s, and Utah’s, greatest assets. Today, a once-in-a-generation opportunity exists to reroute the tracks, reclaim the railyards, and reconnect our communities.” 

The historic Rio Grande Depot was built in 1910 and served as the city’s station until 1999. It is still standing, and currently being renovated. I can attest to the difference in the experience of arriving at the city in the early 1980s at the historic depot, and at the Amshak-style station in use today. Simply stated, the latter is not the place to celebrate an arrival.

Garrott reported on the 2020 Rio Grande Plan and its prospects in Building Salt Lake on September 27, 2021 (found at https://www.buildingsaltlake.com/the-rio-grande-plan-updated-putting-trains-underground-in-depot-and-granary-districts-gets-salt-lake-citys-attention/). He began his report by saying: “A plan designed by citizen-professionals that would reinvigorate train transport, remove barriers between Downtown and the city’s west side, and free up hundreds of acres to redevelopment has been making its way to some ‘important stakeholders’ since I last reported.” He then said: “Conceived in 2020, the Rio Grande Plan has lifted a lot of eyebrows since. Its new iteration, just released to the public, is an impressive mix of graphic and urban design, transportation engineering, and railroad knowledge.” Lenhart and Blakely made this vision statement in the web “overview” “The Rio Grande Plan is a vision for Salt Lake City that would improve the safety and efficiency of transportation across the city, open 70 acres of industrial land to new development, reconnect the east and west sides of the city, and create a premier, high-capacity transportation hub centered on a fully restored Rio Grande Depot.”

In his reporting at the time, Garrott painted an optimistic picture for the plan’s apparent prospects, at least as things appeared then. He noted this list of benefits from the plan in his report as bullet points:

• Relocates all north-south train tracks between 900 S and 100 S in a below-grade structure called a ‘train box.’
• Relocates all transit services from the current Salt Lake Central Station at 600 W and 300 S to the historic Rio Grande Depot at 450 W and 300 S.
• Permanently disappears railroad crossings that block west-east flow in and near Downtown: 200 S and 650 W, 800 S and 650 W, and 900 S and 650 W.
• Demolishes the 400 S viaduct, liberating nearly 2000 linear ft of street frontage – 2 1/2 blocks on each side of the resurfaced street.
• Opens up 52 acres of land from former railroad usage.
• Opens up more than 150 additional acres of privately-owned land for redevelopment.

Garrott did not mention any negative responses from City officials in his report. Instead, he quoted Council Member Dan Dugan, a vocal supporter of the plan, as saying: “I’m impressed. It’s bold, transformative, where I can have some great growth for Salt Lake City that doesn’t increase the number of cars or make it necessary to expand I-15.”

The two reports by Luke Garrott in Building Salt Lake appeared less than ten months apart. Last year’s report lauded the 2020 Lenhart-Blakely proposal and expressed hope from its authors that it was gaining momentum. The more-recent report concentrated on the 2019 plan from the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Authority and the UTA that appeared to provide a less-desirable location and a less-desirable customer experience than the Lenhard-Blakely plan. What changed during those ten months?

I don’t know for sure, but there is an important clue in the on-line document about the proposal. It says: “The Rio Grande Plan has been called a Citizen Proposal. This means that the city did not ask for the study to be done – I did out ourselves because I love our city and I have a vision for what it can become that I want to share with everyone.” In a world where politics and money rule, the fact that the proposal in question was unsolicited is enough to cause essentially everybody with authority to avoid it, no matter how meritorious in might look either on paper or on line. 

There is nothing new about high-level decision-makers ignoring proposals by citizens who lack strong political ties, but another project in New York City is garnering citizen opposition, even though the governor and the city’s major are backing it. I’ll have more about it in the next article in this series.

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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