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Salt Lake will be a "streetcar city" — someday.
Whether that’s sooner or later remains to be seen, but the administration of Mayor Ralph Becker is moving forward with a plan for a downtown streetcar that would act as a circulator for the central business district, connect to the Granary District near 900 South and 200 West, and could link to the University of Utah via 100 South or 200 South.
The plan, which is still preliminary, could cost $100 million to $200 million. And although it’s been in development since 2010, a presentation of the latest developments was met Tuesday with confusion by some members of the City Council.
Councilman Luke Garrott said certain aspects of the proposed downtown streetcar seemed redundant with the TRAX light-rail line that runs from the U. to downtown on 400 South and then on to the Central Station intermodel hub via Main Street, South Temple, 400 West and 200 South.
"I can’t recall a robust discussion of why we need a downtown streetcar and where it should go," he said in an interview. "Without a citywide [mass transit master] plan we don’t know how to prioritize."
Such a master plan is in the works, according to administration officials, but will not be completed until spring 2016.
The council is not necessarily opposed to a downtown streetcar, said Chairman Charlie Luke. "But there are a lot of questions we need answered." Like Garrott, he wondered whether the streetcar should be the council’s next transportation priority.
"If the goal is to move people, this is not the best way," he said. "If redevelopment is the goal, we have to state that."
He noted that the second and third phases of the Sugar House Streetcar have yet to be built. "Is this the project that needs to be built next?" he said of the downtown-streetcar proposal.
But Councilman Kyle LaMalfa said he is pleased with the progress of the plan because mass transit is necessary to ensure a bright future for Salt Lake City.
"We are moving forward to becoming a streetcar city," he said. "We aren’t going to finish one [streetcar] project without starting another one."
Nonetheless, he said, residents should know there is a trade-off that comes with streetcars. "We are seeing this in Sugar House right now," he said. " We’ve got this great amenity, but when you get a streetcar, you have to increase the use of the land. You have to rezone."
The project is designed to provide better transportation around downtown and bring development investment and economic activity to the area, among other things, said Robin Hutcheson, city transportation director.
In the coming weeks, the administration will provide the council with more information that could lead to a formal recommendation of the proposal, she said.
Although completion of the master plan is about two years away, Hutcheson said it is important to move forward with the downtown-streetcar plan and other transit options, including increased bus routes.
But Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said she needs more information before she could endorse a downtown-streetcar. In the short term, she would like to see a bus circulator downtown, among other things. "Shall we hold off on projects involving millions and millions of dollars until we see show they will be addressed in the master plan? Yes."
Mendenhall wants to see the Sugar House Streetcar extended to the intersection of 2100 South and 1100 East to see how well it serves the area. "This is a good chance to put the head on the streetcar body."
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