On Saturday, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) will cut the ribbon on the trolley car line traveling down the heart of the Sugar House community. The newly minted “S-Line” is expected to carry 4,000 riders a day and cost $55.5 million to complete.
But, with this ribbon cutting comes the beginning of the end of new rail lines for UTA and the start of a long process of debt repayment.
As Utah Political Capitol wrote in June, an independent legislative audit shows that debt payments “will consume a larger portion of sales tax revenues and impose a financial strain on UTA.” In the same report, analysts say UTA’s revenue projections are “optimistic” and that UTA may be forced to cut service if expenses are too high or revenues too low. Adding to this, state auditors feel that UTA “[leaves] little margin for error in revenue and cost projections or to pay for additional expansions.”
Since the opening of the original 15 mile UTA Trax line, which opened in December of 1999, the size of the Wasatch Front’s rail system has exploded. Including the S Line, the light rail/trolley system will feature 45 miles of track and 50 stops. This, along with the 88 miles of heavy rail track on the 16 stop FrontRunner system mean that the metro area has the ninth-busiest rail system in the country. And a lack of continued growth does not appear to be due to a lack of demand.
Cities at the southern end of Davis County have been toying with the idea of either an extension of the current Trax system into the cities of North Salt Lake, Woods Cross, and Bountiful or an independent light rail or trolley system in their communities connected to the FrontRunner system as the benefits of rail have made themselves clear to residents of Salt Lake County, and in the new communities growing around FrontRunner stations along the Wasatch Front. However, due to over extension and debt collection, the future of such projects appear to be a pipe dream.
UTA is not necessarily abandoning growth projects but, instead, is focusing on beefing up its bus system. Over the past three years, ridership on UTA buses has been decreasing. Though many former bus riders have transitioned over to the rail system, several lines have been cut over the years that feed into local neighborhoods – with local residents complaining that, unless a person lives next to a rail station, they are out of luck.
Utah State Senator Karen Mayne (Democrat – West Valley City), has been a vocal critic of UTA’s decision to move away from neighborhood buses, noting in the past that “[people in her community] can’t walk to the store, We get in our car and go… That’s what we do in West Valley City, we don’t have city blocks, we have county blocks.” By decreasing or eliminating bus service in the communities she represents, Mayne argues, UTA is all but forcing people to drive in order to live, work, and play – ultimately increasing congestion and pollution.
Improvements such as the 3500 South Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system are planned at various locations across the valley. Such upgrades are far less expensive than installing rail, but also do not offer the same appeal as a train station and move fewer people within a community. These lines also inherently require an extra step to transfer to the rail system, adding commute times to those who choose to use the entire transit system.
The S-Line, however, is expected to alleviate pressure on an extremely congested 2100 South, where on-road rail (such as that seen in downtown Salt Lake) is nearly impossible to accommodate. Salt Lake City has expressed interest in further expanding the S-Line through various forms of financial support, but current proposals to run the trolley down 1100 East have been met with resistance from Sugar House residents.
The newly opened S-Line runs from the 2100 South Trax Station east along a formally abandoned rail line running at 2230 South. The line will terminate at McClelland Street (1040 East). The top speed of the S-Line is 25 miles per hour means that travel time along the 2 mile stretch of track and trains will run on a 20 minute schedule.
The Blue Line, connecting Downtown Salt Lake to Sandy was expanded into Draper and opened three new stops in August of this year while the Green Line expansion to the Salt Lake City International Airport opened for business in April of this year.