Many in Ogden still dream of streetcar connection
The notion of connecting Ogden's downtown transit hub to Weber State University and McKay-Dee Hospital via streetcar and routing tracks up 25th Street through the heart of the city's east-central neighborhood continues to get traction but no funding.
In November 2007, Weber County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax for public transportation. But those dollars would not come close to covering construction costs for the desired streetcar system.
In 2010, a $720,000 transit study priced such a project at about $156 million and recommended a cheaper Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) option using a 36th Street route instead.
But to City Council member Susie Van Hooser, having rails on the ground would accomplish more than simply moving people through the city.
"We see all the [light-rail] lines going south and we're wondering if it's an opportunity for Ogden to benefit economically and to enhance Weber State University," Van Hooser said.
Many Weber State students commute to campus by car, and Van Hooser said that the university's limited land could be better used for buildings rather than parking lots.
Ogden homeowner Brandon Bell has been actively engaged with the Historic Trolley District, a grass-roots group that aims to revitalize the city's east-central neighborhood through combining the addition of mixed-use zoning with a user-friendly streetcar route.
"The main risk of Bus Rapid Transit is the possibility that Ogden could sell itself significantly short of the economic and real estate development potential that it has as a city," Bell said, adding that executed properly, a streetcar system would revitalize the city in ways that BRT could not.
"After people get off the streetcar, they're going to want to walk somewhere," Bell said. "And once they get where they're going, are they somewhere worth being somewhere that is vibrant, lively and enjoyable?"
In late July, Van Hooser and other Ogden officials traveled to Oregon to see Portland's streetcar and Eugene's BRT systems firsthand.
Portland, with a 2010 population 583,776, commenced its streetcar feasibility study in 1990 and in July 2001 launched passenger service between Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Portland State University. Since that time, its streetcar fleet expanded, and the route now covers four miles. The system is credited with sparking dramatic downtown revitalization.
Eugene, population 156,185, commenced service on its hybrid-electric "Emerald Express" BRT system in early 2007 with its four-mile Green Line providing timely travel between its urban core to nearby downtown Springfield.
Capital costs for Eugene's BRT system ran $24 million, while Portland's phased streetcar system cost $181 million, according to information presented by the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC). By spring 2011, about 7,100 passengers rode Eugene's BRT each weekday, compared to an average 12,100 using Portland's streetcar.
"Each project is meant to fit its own needs," said WFRC planner Greg Scott. He said that BRT is typically oriented toward speed, with fewer station stops than streetcars.
"All streetcars and all BRTs are not the same," Scott said.
While transit mode and routes to campus are not of key importance to Weber State administrator Norm Tarbox, he hopes that improvements can be implemented sooner rather than later. Studies on the Ogden/Weber State transit corridor date to 2004.
"We've been supportive from the beginning to strengthen the transit corridor from downtown Ogden to Weber State," Tarbox said. "Ultimately, we would love to have a streetcar come across the city and on to campus."
However, Tarbox conceded that Ogden will likely have to grow into the more costly streetcar option.
"Weber State supports the city's desire to use this project as an economic development and revitalization tool," Tarbox said, adding that the ball is now in the city's court to determine how to proceed. But if no improvements are made, Tarbox believes the university will suffer.
"If over the next 20 years, we have not significantly strengthened the transit corridor to Weber State, it will affect the size of the institution and will put us at a competitive disadvantage to those schools who have secured this type of investment," Tarbox said,
The Utah Transit Authority provides basic bus service along the 25th Street route to the university and hospital. Spokesman Gerry Carpenter said the agency is in a holding pattern, waiting for Ogden officials to determine the path forward.
"We're continuing to partner with the city and be supportive of their efforts," Carpenter said.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell said the city is doing its homework on the projects.
"There are intense feelings on both sides," Caldwell said of the streetcar's economic development appeal versus the cost-effective BRT.
"Financing is the biggest hurdle," he said.