Light rail moves inland from the 'Left Coast'

by Allen Best

On any given Sunday afternoon in Salt Lake City, Utah, families in their shirt-and-tie finest queue up at light-rail stations near the Mormon temple. On a Saturday night, fans of the Utah Jazz, the city’s professional basketball team, disembark for a game at the Delta Center. And on school days, University of Utah students jump on and off trains at the light-rail station near where church prophet Brigham Young proclaimed, "This is the place."

In just six years, light rail has become deeply embedded in the daily routine of the Salt Lake Valley, as proponents hope it eventually will in other cities of the Interior West. If that seems improbable, consider how distant light rail seemed only two decades ago in Salt Lake. While liberal-minded cities like Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, Calif., built or expanded rail systems during the 1980s, the leaders of Salt Lake City focused on expanding the highway system to accommodate a growing — and sprawling — population. But, as in Denver, it soon became apparent that the need to slow traffic congestion, air pollution and the loss of open space would require a new approach.

In 1988, a contingent of Salt Lake leaders traveled to an unlikely place for inspiration. Calgary, Alberta, is located on a wide-open prairie, with plenty of space to sprawl, and its economy is driven by some of the continent’s richest oil reserves. Nonetheless, Calgary launched a light-rail system in 1981 that now accounts for 220,000 rider trips on a typical weekday — this, in a metropolis of less than 1 million.

How did Calgary do it? By adhering to a good old-fashioned conservative principle: fiscal efficiency. Because the Canadian government does not provide money for local road-building, local officials have encouraged dense settlement patterns and embraced cost-effective mass transit, says John Inglish, general manager of the Utah Transit Authority. Over the years, mass transit has gotten as much funding as highways.

Buoyed by Calgary’s success, rail boosters in Salt Lake asked voters in 1992 for a sales tax increase to pay for light rail. A dedicated tax was needed, proponents claimed, because the state government was already using all of its transportation funds on highways. But the election campaign turned ugly, recalls Inglish. Talk radio was rabid with wild accusations. Demonstrators hoisted placards claiming "Light Rail Kills Children."

"They called it snail rail," Inglish remembers. "They compared it to old street cars."

In fact, today’s rail cars can easily go 60, even 80 miles per hour. Suspension systems combined with quarter-mile-long rails have eliminated the old clickety-clack. But none of that mattered, as voters soundly rejected the sales tax increase.

In a move that infuriated opponents, Utah Transit plunged ahead anyway, dipping into its own budget to buy an underused railroad line. Buoyed by federal aid from the transit-friendly Clinton administration, it began work on a 15-mile long light-rail line. When Trax, as Salt Lake’s light rail was dubbed, debuted in December 1999, hundreds of Utahns stood in line, shivering in the cold, to await their turns to ride.

Mormon business leaders liked what they saw, and soon helped engineer an extension from downtown Salt Lake to the University of Utah. "That sent a very important sign to conservative Mormons in Utah that this wasn’t a bad thing," says Inglish.

Light rail quickly reduced parking needs at the university. Before, most of the 3,000 parking spaces were occupied daily. Now, despite the rapid growth of both enrollment and staff, university officials have been able to build new classrooms on some of the old parking lots, says Norm Chambers, the university’s assistant vice president for auxiliary services.

Light rail diverts only 2 percent of the metro area’s traffic, some 50,000 riders daily. But Inglish points out that the adjacent Interstate 15 carries only triple the riders of the parallel light-rail line, while using far more space. Putting more light-rail cars on during rush hour is relatively cheap, he notes, while expanding the highway is enormously expensive.

Even suburban governments that in 1992 registered opposition to light rail are now jockeying for extensions to their communities. An extension approved this year will provide service to South Jordan and West Jordan in 2008. Light-rail proponents hope to get voter approval in 2008 for a major expansion similar to Denver’s FasTracks. Supporters plan to appeal to family quality of life and business expansion, values that resonate in the church- and Republican-dominated Salt Lake Valley.

Beyond Salt Lake

Light rail is catching on in other Interior cities as well. Phoenix, Ariz., recently plunged into a $1.3 billion rail project. Work is under way on 20 miles of light rail, expected to open in December 2008. And more is coming: Voters last November authorized a sales tax that, while most generous to highway expansions, will finance 40 miles of additional light rail during the next 20 years.

Rapidly densifying Las Vegas, Nev., which has put in place a short monorail and bus rapid transit, has discussed light rail, but has not committed to it.

Western resorts are also looking to rail-based solutions. For more than a decade, Aspen, Colo., has flirted with restoring trains to the old rails that connect it to Glenwood Springs, hoping to solve the big-city gridlock at the little city’s edge. Similarly, the nearby Vail-Eagle area hopes that Union Pacific tracks, hardly used since 1997, can eventually be converted for commuter trains.

Meanwhile, supporters of a rail-based solution to the congestion of Interstate 70 between Summit County and metropolitan Denver continue to resist plans for highway expansion. Denver’s bold adventure with FasTracks has given them some hope that a new day is dawning for Colorado, not just in its cities but also in the rapidly growing rural areas.

Utah’s embrace of light rail is being noted elsewhere. In metropolitan Boise, which has a burgeoning population of 500,000, and a bus system "held together with baling wire and duct tape," Jon Barrett, co-director of Idaho Smart Growth, says light rail was once viewed as an undesirable social construction of "Left Coast" cities such as Portland. But two years ago, attitudes about light rail began softening, because of what people had seen in Utah.

"People cannot dismiss Salt Lake, because it’s culturally and environmentally similar to Boise," Barrett says. "The attitude in Boise has changed to one of ‘if they can do it there, maybe we can do it here.’ "

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