A solution to connect Salt Lake City’s east and west side is gaining steam

The Rio Grande Plan could cost up to $5 billion, but city leaders are taking a serious look.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rail lines in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. The city is exploring the possibility of bringing east and west neighborhoods together again, but at a steep price.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Salt Lake City streets are usually easy to navigate. The straightforward grid system, neatly numbered and identified by the cardinal points, gives even the most directionally challenged a chance to get around without a GPS.

But the whole system falls apart on the city’s east/west border, where railroad tracks and Interstate 15 conspire to create one-way streets and dead ends.

Two city residents, Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely, came up with a plan to bring new life to the blocks between the old Rio Grande Station at 300 South/400 West and I-15. They started sharing and advocating for their “Rio Grande Plan” in 2020.

The plan calls for realigning Amtrak, Frontrunner and Union Pacific’s rail lines in train boxes running under 500 West. It would also restore the old historic Rio Grande Station and replace Salt Lake City’s Central Station.

The rail lines make crossing from one side of the city to another dangerous and frustrating. Freight trains are frequently stopped for long periods of time, and commute times by bike or foot can be unpredictable. Salt Lake City has already taken some steps to improve the situation — including building a pedestrian bridge over 300 North.

Now, the city is taking a serious look at the Rio Grande Plan. On Thursday night Salt Lake City transportation engineer Joe Taylor shared the results of a new 121-page screening analysis in a packed hall at Industry, a meeting place in the Granary District.

The bottom line: the project would cost from $3 billion to $5 billion and open up 76 acres of land for redevelopment. The train box would stretch for 4.2 miles and eliminate eight railway crossings.

“We’ll find the money because it’s going to pay for itself in a big way,” said council member Dan Dugan, who represents the city’s northeast side.

A “Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods” federal grant paid for the study of the Rio Grande Plan. The aim of the federal program is to “to reconnect communities that are cut off from opportunity and burdened by past transportation infrastructure decisions,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website.

Over the next two years the city will use the federal funds to explore other alternatives to bridge Salt Lake City’s divide. So far, the Rio Grande Plan is just one option that it may choose to pursue further.

While the city is exploring ways to improve connectivity, West siders are facing another $3.7 billion expansion of I-15.

“If we want a downtown,” Christian Lenhart told those gathered, “we have to fight hard for it.”