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Editorial: Another streetcar not necessarily what downtown SLC needs

More rail may not be the answer.

First Published Aug 01 2014 09:37 am • Last Updated Aug 01 2014 09:37 am

Astronomer Carl Sagan — the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his time — was once trying to dismiss pseudo-scientific legends of Bermuda Triangle-like mysteries by noting that it was always airplanes and ships that went missing, never trains.

To which TV host Dick Cavett — the Jon Stewart of his time — immediately rejoined, "I can see you’ve never waited for the Long Island Railroad."

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Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker doesn’t want to wait to start the process toward building another city-UTA streetcar line, this one connecting the University of Utah’s main campus with downtown and points south.

No matter what the mayor, or anyone else, wants, it will be awhile before any track is laid. Nobody has the $100 million to $200 million the line might cost. And not everyone, including some members of the Salt Lake City Council, is convinced that such a project is really a good idea.

Those who urge a little hesitation are on the right track.

For one thing, the city is already working on a city-wide transit plan, which won’t be ready until Christmas — 2015.

For another, it’s not clear that the mayor’s proposal of a streetcar is really what downtown needs. It would be rather redundant of the existing TRAX Red Line that connects downtown with the U. It would not be the downtown circulator that neighborhood merchants and residents have long desired.

There’s also the question of whether more rail is really the answer. It costs tons more than buses and is locked into a certain route that might not keep up with development patterns.

The often unspoken reason why many upwardly mobile cities have invested so much local and federal money in rail, often to the detriment of bus improvements and expansions, is the feeling that trains are sleek, sexy and futuristic, attractive to debit-card wielding, wi-fi seeking professionals, while only little people ride buses.

That can all depend, of course, on the bus.

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The city should consider a system of smallish, modern, electric buses, kept clean, run on time, connecting downtown with the Avenues, Rose Park and other neighborhoods in orbit around the central business district. That might make more sense, draw more riders, and even impress more rich tourists, than another expensive rail line. The city, not the regionally minded UTA, would probably have to run it.

We should consider such options before another $200 million disappears into the Transit Triangle.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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