Although the Salt Lake City Council has been wishing for a downtown transit circulator for years, it remains just that — an unfulfilled dream.
But on Tuesday, the council will consider a proposal by Mayor Ralph Becker’s administration for a streetcar in the central business district.
Council meeting Tuesday
The Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to discuss plans for a downtown streetcar at its Tuesday work session. The meeting begins at 2 p.m. in Room 326 at City Hall, 451 S. State St.
The plan is to run a streetcar line from the University of Utah west on 100 South or 200 South to 400 West, where it would turn south and continue to 900 South. The cost is estimated at $100 million to $200 million.
Among other things, the hefty price tag means it’s years away. No funding mechanism has been identified. No time frame has been set. But the proposal has spawned a wider transit conversation among council members.
Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall wondered aloud why the council, the Becker administration and the Utah Transit Authority don’t consider a bus circulator in the near term — though she conceded that rail has its advantages because routes are permanent.
"What gets riders to use mass transit is a permanent option," she said. "But why don’t we do a circulator bus and see what ridership is?"
Easier said than done. UTA determines where to route its buses — not the council, not the mayor. By contrast, the city can build streetcar lines on its own, or in partnership with UTA.
Councilman Luke Garrott doesn’t see the latest streetcar proposal as a downtown circulator. It doesn’t provide an entire circuit, he said, and its east-west leg is "redundant," given that it’s just two to three blocks from the 400 South TRAX line.
"A downtown circulator would be a boon for residents, workers and visitors," he said. "The streetcar doesn’t get us to a circulator and that is a huge missed opportunity."
Salt Lake City’s transit master plan won’t be completed until late 2015 or early 2016. Garrott said planning a downtown streetcar lacks context with an overall plan.
"There seems to be a disconnect on this project," he said. "This plan makes very little sense to me."
Although the master plan is more than a year away, transportation director Robin Hutcheson said earlier this year that it’s important to move forward with the downtown streetcar plan. Beyond providing better transportation around downtown, it would attract development investment and economic activity to the area.
The plan does lay out what is reasonable for a streetcar route, agreed Councilman Kyle LaMalfa. And the downtown streetcar plan does not stop other planning from going forward.
"This is work that has to be done, one way or another," LaMalfa said of transit planning.
Further, he noted, that while Salt Lake City can ask UTA for new bus routes, it cannot demand them.
Although the municipality could financially underwrite a new UTA bus route, it may not be economically feasible, LaMalfa said. Such a route could cost hundreds of thousands annually to operate, but fares would account for only 15 percent of the total.
"We’re in a Catch-22," LaMalfa said. "If the fares covered a lot more of the expense, we would have a little more control."
Nonetheless, Council Chairman Charlie Luke said the council must take the lead on bus routing because UTA has a regional commitment that does not necessarily prioritize Salt Lake City neighborhoods.
The city can find ways to add transit routes, he added, including partnering with other entities, such as the U., that also may be seeking more bus routes for employees and students.
"We have a responsibility to our residents," Luke said. "Our focus has to be on Salt Lake City."
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