How Salt Lake City plans to heal its ‘single-largest transportation issue’

Utah’s capital is crafting a new plan for how it might further stitch together two sides of town.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Interstate 15 divides neighborhoods at 400 North in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2024. City officials are crafting a plan to better connect the east and west sides of Utah's capital.

Tired of being stuck at train crossings? Worried about getting hit by a car speeding off Interstate 15? Salt Lake City officials are aiming to address those concerns in a new 20-year transportation plan.

Utah’s capital is in the process of adopting a new citywide transportation document to guide policy. On Tuesday, officials briefed the City Council on the goals, including an aim to heal the east-west divide.

“It became very clear in the course of engagement with this plan that the east-west divide is the single-largest transportation issue in the city,” city transportation planner Joe Taylor told the council, “and that that issue is well beyond the bounds of just a mobility issue, that it has psychological and investment implications that have likely predated the incorporation of Salt Lake City and persist to this day.”

The city last created a full transportation plan in 1996. Since then, Utah has hosted the Winter Olympics, expanded I-15 and built the TRAX light rail system, creating new challenges and opportunities for west-siders trying to run errands or go out for dinner on the east side of the freeway and the rail lines.

Healing the east-west divide is one of eight sections in the proposed plan, which paints a grim picture of how I-15 and train tracks affect the lives of west-siders.

The west side makes up roughly a third of the city’s 204,000 residents but sees more than three-quarters of its fatal crashes. West-side census tracts have worse air quality than at least 80% of other census tracts nationwide. And street-level train crossings, the plan says, happen hundreds of times a day with no published schedules, impacting travel time reliability for people crossing the divide.

In the document, transportation officials outlined four strategies for mending the city. First, they want to develop a list of projects. They then would prioritize making train and freeway crossings safer and more predictable by adding better signs and redesigning interchanges.

They also want to build more community spaces and beautify passageways underneath the interstate. Finally, they hope to build more well-connected neighborhoods by establishing mobility hubs with additional amenities — like a community center at Redwood Road and North Temple, where multiple transit lines intersect — and creating more public spaces above I-15, similar to the Seattle Convention Center that spans Interstate 5.

Included in the plan’s section on the east-west divide is a list of bigger, bolder ideas that transportation officials believe would make even greater progress reconnecting the two sides of town, such as burying the freeway and train tracks and crafting more connections through the berm that carries I-15 traffic south of 900 South. The city also could pursue reconfiguration of the freeway’s interchanges at 500 South, 600 South and 900 South to better link neighborhoods.

Utah’s capital can’t reach those goals of reconnection on its own, though. Officials will rely on agreements with outside entities to make progress.

The Utah Department of Transportation is pursuing further I-15 expansion, possibly widening the divide. The Utah Transit Authority runs buses and trains in the city. A private company, Union Pacific, is responsible for most of the blockages at rail crossings.

Having a plan that spells out city officials’ goals clearly would help propel negotiations with those entities, including the planning group Wasatch Front Regional Council.

“So, having a council-adopted plan it’s really powerful and it triggers certain things,” said Jon Larsen, the city’s transportation director. “It gives a lot more power to the conversations we have as staff with UDOT, UTA, WFRC staff, because it’s not just us coming up with some idea. This is something that has gone through a full process … It makes the conversations a lot more serious.”

Public commenters said they liked the plan overall but added that it didn’t go far enough to endorse the Rio Grande Plan, a grassroots effort to trench the rail lines and restore train service to the Rio Grande Depot.

“My only concern is that the City Council and the plan is not dreaming big enough,” said Robbie Stutchbury, a Glendale resident and University of Utah student. “We can afford to make large and bold moves and show not just to the council’s constituents but the rest of the state and country that Salt Lake City is ready to build for the future. This is why I suggest the council consider the Rio Grande Plan as an important part of the city’s future goals. This plan would free up high-value urban areas downtown and allow the plan to better fulfill its goal of connecting the east and west sides of the valley.”

The City Council intends to discuss the plan further before adoption. Council members are set to take action on it sometime next month. If adopted, city officials will look to pursue projects that match up with the goals.

Some connection projects, like a proposed multiuse path along 400 South that will include public art, already line up with the document and are in motion.

Proposals to improve connection points haven’t always been embraced, though. The controversial 400 North underpass at I-15, originally proposed by UDOT, also links well with the plan, but city officials are no longer pursuing it after public outcry.