The Salt Lake City Council finds itself between a streetcar and a hard place.
Before an April 23 public hearing, a majority of the seven-member council appeared to favor Mayor Ralph Becker's preferred extension of the Sugar House Streetcar north on 1100 East from 2100 South to 1700 South.
But more than 200 residents crammed City Hall last month and, by a significant margin, voiced opposition to the 1100 East proposal. They warned the council the streetcar would diminish their neighborhood, harm businesses during construction, add to congestion and pose safety hazards for pedestrians and bicyclists.
"We are thriving on this street and don't need a streetcar," said business owner Lori Leighton. "The street is too narrow [for a streetcar] and construction will hurt our business."
Others, like Gail Murdock, who took part in a protest against the line, said the proposed streetcar would harm the integrity of the neighborhood. "It's ethically not OK to bring the streetcar along 1100 East."
The barrage of public disapproval pushed the council to reconsider. It will take up the matter again at its Tuesday afternoon work session. A vote is scheduled for 7 that evening in Room 321 at City Hall, 451 S. State St.
The council could endorse the 1100 East route and, according to some, risk alienating residents and business owners. On the other hand, it could vote for an alternative route that would run east on 2100 South from Highland Drive to 1700 East an option that is favored by some 2100 South business owners.
Or the council could decide to wait until a citywide transportation plan is completed 18 to 24 months from now. A number of residents voiced support for such a plan at the public hearing.
"We're put in a tough position," said Council Chairman Kyle LaMalfa, "because we all believe those impacted by the decision have a right to contribute in a meaningful way."
Councilman Luke Garrott has long maintained that identifying any extension of the streetcar line is premature until a comprehensive plan is completed. "Moving ahead without a master plan," he said, "is absolutely the wrong thing to do."
Further, he noted, it's critical to have public approval for any new line. "We shouldn't build any new track until we get community support."
Councilman Charlie Luke, too, believes a comprehensive plan is needed. He favors the route east on 2100 South to 1700 East.
"There has been a movement for us to push this as quickly as possible," he said. "It's too important of an issue to rush."
But Councilwoman Jill Remington Love, who has favored the 1100 East alignment, said confusion and misinformation have plagued the proposal and led to much of the public consternation voiced at the hearing.
"Despite our best efforts, we haven't been able to bring everyone along on the streetcar," she said. "It doesn't hurt neighborhoods; it helps neighborhoods. Property values go up."
Beyond that, she said, the Becker administration already has conducted an 18-month-long analysis of the 1100 East alignment. "I don't want to wait two more years for someone to tell us what is the best street to head north on."
That analysis by the consulting firm of Fehr & Peers found the 2100 South extension to 1700 East to be a viable but less preferred route. The mayor has said that although 2100 South is not the better alignment, extending the line east would beat doing nothing. The city will build a streetcars network, he said, and eventually east-west routes will be built along with north-south lines.
Some residents at the public hearing appeared not to understand the difference between light rail and a streetcar, said Councilman Stan Penfold.
Queried about that difference, Penfold said phase I of the streetcar line along the old railroad right of way between 200 West and McClelland Avenue will utilize a single TRAX car but will travel 15 mph to 25 mph. However, once the line is extended along city streets, a smaller, more traditional streetcar must be acquired for the line.
A rendering from the city shows the streetcar traveling in automobile traffic along 1100 East. Utah Transit Authority officials say streetcar platforms at regular stops will be much smaller and shorter than those that serve TRAX but will be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The city has a lot of work to do around education," Penfold said. "There are a lot of questions on how it works. It's not a big train."
Residents' concerns must be addressed, Penfold said. But once they are, he added, it's important to move forward.
"I still feel good with coming north on 1100 East," he said. "I'd hate to just stall."
Councilman Soren Simonsen, who has favored an extension eastward rather than northward on 1100 East, urged the council to listen to residents.
"There is already some dissatisfaction by the public in terms of their voices not getting heard," he said. "What we do here will have a big impact on whether people want to participate in the future."
By year's end, the first phase of the Sugar House Streetcar will be completed between the TRAX Central Pointe Station at 221 W. 2100 South and an eastern terminus at 2140 S. McClelland Ave. (1050 East). There is broad support for extending the streetcar line one block east to Highland Drive at Sugarmont Avenue (2225 South).
The current debate is based upon the notion that the line will be lengthened from Sugarmont Avenue and Highland Drive north to 2100 South. But no funding now exists for such an extension. Further, no funding mechanism has been identified for the proposal to expand the line along 1100 East to 1700 South or the alternative proposal eastward along 2100 South to 1700 East.
However, once the city has identified a "preferred alternative," it could seek federal funding for an extension.
Although Councilman Carlton Christensen favors the 1100 East route, he said "the public isn't ready for it."
If the city is seeking funding for a streetcar line, he said, it should consider proposals to construct one elsewhere, such as downtown, rather than an area where it is not welcome. But Christensen said he could support designating 1100 East as the preferred alignment for the Sugar House Streetcar, while deferring funding for the route to a future date.
"Any controversial vote will anger somebody," he said. "I'm inclined to believe the 11th East option has a lot of potential."
The City Council will again consider the Sugar House Streetcar extension at its Tuesday afternoon work session. A vote is scheduled for the council's formal meeting that evening at 7 p.m. in Room 321, City Hall, 451 S. State.
City Council weighs public input
Carlton Christensen • "Any controversial vote will anger someone."
Kyle LaMalfa • "The council wants to bring streetcars back sooner rather than later."
Stan Penfold • "There were a lot of questions on how it works. It's not a big train."
Luke Garrott • "Moving ahead without a master plan is absolutely the wrong thing to do."
Jill Remington Love • "It doesn't hurt neighborhoods; it helps neighborhoods."
Charlie Luke • "It's too important of an issue to rush."
Soren Simonsen • "There is public dissatisfaction in terms of their voices not getting heard."