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Sugar House Streetcar drawing business, not riders

First Published Aug 17 2014 01:01AM      Last Updated Aug 18 2014 05:38 pm

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Folks climb aboard Sugar House streetcar at the 900 East stop Wednesday August 13. It is only slightly faster than the nearby parallel bus, and pedestrians sometimes can outrace it. Far fewer people than projected are riding it. And it was expensive, $37 million. But officials still see it as a success and worth the price because of the economic development it has attracted.

The new Sugar House Streetcar is only slightly faster than a nearby parallel bus route, and even pedestrians can sometimes outrace it. Far fewer people than expected are riding the fresh two-mile line that cost $37 million to build.

But Salt Lake City and Utah Transit Authority officials still view the streetcar as a success and well worth the price for one main reason: It delivers economic development up and down the line.

"The amount of community investment that has occurred will make this streetcar an excellent return on investment," says Robin Hutcheson, the city’s transportation director.


The great Sugar House train race

Time and cost for transportation modes along the two-mile Sugar House Streetcar line:

Sugar House Streetcar » Time: 12 minutes (10 mph). Frequency: Every 20 minutes. Cash fare: $2.50. Construction cost: $37 million.

Route 21 bus. » Time: 13 minutes. Cash fare: $2.50. Frequency: Every 15 minutes. Construction cost: $0.

Tribune reporter on foot (56 years old, 290 pounds) » Time: 34 minutes (but can nearly beat streetcar in some instances, depending on train wait times). Frequency: Anytime. Fare: $0.

Car (at rush hour) » Time: 5.5 minutes. Frequency: Anytime. Fare: cost of car operation.

"In Sugar House, we’ve calculated there will be about 1,000 new housing units within a short distance of the streetcar line," says D.J. Baxter, executive director of Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency. "There will be about 1.8 million square feet of new space that includes residential, retail and office. It totals a little over $400 million."

In neighboring South Salt Lake, Mayor Cherie Wood has said the new line is attracting another 1 million square feet of new retail development, 350,000 square feet of office space and 3,000 new residential units in her city.

Michael Allegra, president, CEO and general manager of UTA, told his board last week that the line easily is bringing a 10-to-1 return on investment because of economic development.

But the route isn’t proving as successful in terms of ridership and efficiency.

Speed » The streetcar takes 12 minutes to cover its two-mile run from the Central Pointe TRAX station to Fairmont Park along an abandoned freight-train corridor. That’s an average of 10 mph.

The train runs every 20 minutes and is limited to that frequency because streetcars can pass one another only in one short span of double tracks. Regional transportation plans call for building $900,000 in additional double tracks sometime in the next six years to allow streetcar service every 15 minutes.

UTA’s parallel east-west Route 21 bus, about two blocks away on 2100 South, takes 13 minutes to cover the same distance, often making more stops. But it runs every 15 minutes. It also did not require any expensive construction.

The Salt Lake Tribune decided to see how long it would take to walk the line. Its 56-year-old, 290-pound transportation reporter took 34 minutes to cover the distance — hitting most traffic lights red on a hot summer afternoon.

But that could still beat the streetcar, or come near to tying it, in some instances.

For example, if someone just missed a streetcar at the end of the line, that passenger would need to wait 20 minutes for another one and then ride for 12 minutes — a total of 32 minutes, barely beating the old fat guy on foot.

If the same rider were traveling just part of the line, perhaps a half or a third of it, the fat pedestrian could cover it faster, depending on how long the wait is for the next streetcar.

"It [the streetcar] is not going to win a race," Baxter concedes. "In fact, a strong cyclist probably could outrun it, and we all knew that from the outset."



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