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The vigorous expansion of light rail transit (LRT) in cities west of the Mississippi
continued on 29 September 2003, as Salt Lake City's Utah Transit Authority (UTA)
opened the latest extension of its TRAX LRT system – this one, to the city's Medical
Center (University of Utah Health Sciences Center). The 1.5-mile, $89.4 million line (see
map below) was completed 15 months ahead of schedule, "giving officials of the UTA
special bragging rights", as the Deseret News put it. UTA estimates the new LRT
extension will attract some 3,000 new weekday rider-trips (boardings) right off the bat.
(Note: For a more comprehensive overview of Salt Lake City's TRAX system, including
a map prior to the recent extension, see our article Salt Lake City: Light Rail's a Hit.)
Fast relief for parking crunch
The new extension includes three new stations (see above map):
· South Campus – located between the Huntsman Center and the LDS Church institute of Religion
· Fort Douglas – located next to the Olympic Legacy Bridge on Wasatch Drive, just below the university's new student housing
· University Medical Center – end terminus of the new extension
The new TRAX extension is intended to provide immediate relief
for the sprawling medical complex – including Primary Children's Medical Center, the Moran Eye Center, and the Huntsman
Cancer institute -- which employs more than 14,000 workers and handles thousands more patients. The complex "is perpetually
short on parking spaces", according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
"We're counting on it to alleviate the parking situation at the medical center, much like
the way the opening of the Stadium Stop really eased the parking problem on the lower campus" explained Norman Chambers, the university's Vice-President for Auxiliary
Services, to the Tribune. "The employees are really looking forward to the opening of this line" he added.
As previously noted, TRAX officials project an initial weekday ridership of around 3,000
a day on the new spur, and expect that number to climb over time. Currently, 7,500 trips
a day are made on TRAX to the university on weekdays, and more than 31,000 a day
are carried on TRAX systemwide, Monday through Friday.
"I'm already taking the train to the U., and with the shuttle from the stadium it takes me
about an hour to get to work" related Babir Singh, a Sandy resident who, acording to the
Tribune, works as a nursing assistant at University Hospital. "I'm sure I'll be saving 15
minutes, and maybe even a half-hour once the train starts running to the hospital."
Traffic priority for LRT
The LRT branch's project cost of approximately $60 million per mile (including 7 new LRT cars) primarily reflects the difficulties and engineering expense of interurban-type LRT construction in street right-of-way in an intensively developed urban corridor, relatively close to the city center (the original route to Sandy, costing about a third as much per mile, is predominantly routed in a pre-existing railway corridor). At the same time, installation of the extension has enabled Salt Lake City to procure substantially greater people-moving capacity from the existing surface thoroughfares in the corridor (see, for example, our article How Light Rail Streetcars increase Street Capacity).
Of particular interest in the design of the new extension is the priority given to transit in
traffic management techniques to ensure high-quality service. Motorists will have to
navigate through what the Tribune describes as a "large roundabout" at the intersection
of South Campus and Campus Center drives, a traffic feature already in operation for
several months prior to the opening of the line. The roundabout, fortified with several
gates, is cited by UTA officials as the only one in the country with trains running through
it. Another set of crossing gates stops traffic flow on 400 South, next to the Stadium
station at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
In addition, three other intersections feature protected right-hand turns – i.e., no turns
on red lights. TRAX and university officials expressed confidence that motorists would
adjust to the new intersection arrangements, including the Wasatch Drive-Medical Drive
nexus, where only traffic signals prevent motorists from crossing the TRAX line.
Mass transit "renaissance"?
At a ceremony opening the new Medical Center station, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky
Anderson joined UTA general manager John inglish in predicting a new "renaissance" of
mass transit in Utah and across the nation, according to the Deseret News. inglish
predicted transit projects will sweep across US cities in the next 50 years. "They're all
looking at Salt Lake City" Anderson said.
At the turn of the last century, the mayor pointed out, Salt Lake City had some 156 miles
of electric rail trolley track, which was ultimately ripped out after a "consortium of
automobile and tire companies" bought and removed the transit system to make way for
wider streets. Today, cities like Salt Lake are endeavoring to re-introduce such transit
projects, but this is only possible with federal transit funding – at least commensurate
with the astronomical investment betowed upon the motor vehicle system.
"We have a tough fight ahead of us" in Washington, warned US Representative Jim
Matheson, a Democratic Congressman from Utah. Matheson criticized the current Bush
administration for its policy downgrading nominal federal funding for transit projects to a
50-percent match. In contrast, previously allocated federal funds covered 60 percent of
the cost to build the Medical Center TRAX extension.
Multi-modal transit expansion program
However tough the fight for federal funding might be, on UTA's radar screen is the
future construction of a regional ("commuter") passenger rail network from Salt Lake
County to the suburban community of Davis and other outlying Utah counties – in
addition to extensions of TRAX LRT service to suburban communities like West Jordan,
West Valley City, and Draper. According to UTA's Director of Transit Development Mike
Allegra, written plans should be completed within a year to extend TRAX from the
central-city Delta Center to a new Salt Lake intermodal transportation terminal near the
Gateway downtown shopping mall. This terminal will not only serve TRAX and UTA
buses, but Amtrak trains, local taxicabs, and Greyhound buses as well.
The regional rail service to Davis County is currently planned for operation by 2007.
However, according to Allegra, no dates have been set for additional TRAX lines, as
funding has yet not been secured.