It makes sense to extend the Sugar House streetcar line another half mile to bring it to where people are. And that’s about all that makes sense in the streetcar saga, which should make Salt Lake City’s transportation planners nervous.
Mayor Ralph Becker, a planner by trade, should be commended for taking a far-reaching view of moving people around in a city growing ever more congested and polluted. He risks losing ground, however, if he doesn’t do a better job of bringing his constituents, and his city council, along with him. Even those council members who eventually voted for the mayor’s plan to extend the line spoke openly of their frustrations with the city and its partnership with Utah Transit Authority.
The mayor’s defense, of course, is that time is on his side. As the city’s population grows and roads become more congested, mass and alternative transit will be well positioned. That idea extends to the belief that urban development should center around train stops. Indeed, with ridership on the Sugar House line about a third of what was predicted, the idea of encouraging transit-oriented development has become the first selling point for the line, the argument being that the ridership eventually will come.
The mayor needs to be careful about the clarity of his crystal ball. A network of rail lines and transit-oriented development is indeed a viable vision, but it’s not the only one. At this moment, driverless electric cars carry engineers around Google’s California campus. The American dream of freedom on wheels may not be dead. Maybe it just needs massive data crunching to make sure trips are faster, more efficient and crash-free.
That’s not to say we should start betting on that scenario, either. It’s just that, in government, vision is a good thing only when it’s shared vision. That’s not what Salt Lake City has right now.
So the council’s narrow majority vote to extend the line to 21st South and Highland Drive gives the streetcar a real destination, instead of having it empty out at the old Granite Furniture "will call" office. But now the city has to go back and look at its whole transportation picture again, this time developing not just a vision but also a process that better involves residents and stakeholders.
That process also should consider two things: first, a greater emphasis on buses. They do nothing to shape transit-oriented development, but they can move people around for a fraction the cost of trains and can easily move to new routes as demand dictates. And, second, the transit vision should separate the city’s interests from UTA’s. In all scenarios, a partnership with the regional transit system will be a key element, but the city likely has to go beyond that to fill in UTA’s gaps.
The streetcar may indeed prove to be the right thing to do, but the streetcar process stands as an example of what not to do.
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