New airport TRAX option could cut costs by $50M. Are the savings worth the potential drawbacks?

Street-level extension of current line couldn’t be built until after new terminal opens and would require an estimated six-to-15-month bus bridge.

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City's administration reported to the Council on Tuesday that reopening Wingpointe Golf Course isn't viable unless the Federal Aviation Administration reconsiders a 2012 decision that the land must be leased at fair-market value. Last year, the City Council approved more than $60,000 for maintenance of the course in case it could be reopened Ñ keeping the tees, greens and fairways "alive" but not "playable." Here a TRAX train passes the golf course as it approaches the Salt Lake International Airport as it in Salt Lake City Tuesday January 17, 2017.

A simple, street-level continuation of the current Salt Lake City International Airport light-rail line would bring passengers a stone’s throw from a new terminal, at a quarter the cost of a longer, elevated track.

The savings to taxpayers are estimated to be more than $50 million. Airport officials say the service — after an interruption of at least six months — will be comparable. But after feeling excluded from the conversation, some City Council members are not yet convinced the city should deviate from its first-choice airport transit plan.

The biggest pro for this new street-level solution — which was, in fact, pulled from the scrapheap by airport engineers who had previously seen it ruled out — is that it would bring costs in line with those anticipated by the Utah Transit Authority when it signed a 2008 agreement to pay for the TRAX extension.

Instead of nearly $70 million, this would cost less than $15 million to build, and while UTA would be out about $2.1 million it has spent to design the elevated track, the agency believes it could fit the new extension within its $5.1 million design budget.

That would save some combination of city, county and state taxpayers from having to chip in for an elevated track. And airport officials say the flaw that had once doomed the street-level option — that it would squeeze larger airplanes trying to back out of nearby gates — is no longer as problematic, thanks to some changes on the gate roster.

“It’s a relief to me,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who learned about the price tag for an elevated extension shortly after taking office in 2016. “Trying to fund that line — that supposedly had been decided on, and no money had been set aside by anyone for it — was really shocking to me as a leader.”

(Courtesy of Salt Lake City International Airport) An aerial view of the planned rebuild at Salt Lake City International Airport. The current airport light-rail stop can be seen at the southern tip of the existing airport (the white crescent-shaped buildings), and a new proposal would simply have the train turn left (west) and stop 150 feet short of the new terminal, on the building's east side. The width of the train line would push a neighboring loading road about 25 feet farther north, leading to a tighter entry and exit for planes at gates northeast of the new terminal building. In light gray, this map shows the light-rail proposal favored until recently by city and transit planners: an elevated track that veers west across airport access roads to the southeast of the parking area and then again westward into the "Gateway Center," represented here as a large blue rectangle north of the parking garage. Passengers would be able to check in and check their bags at the center before walking across a skybridge into the terminal.

City Council members were nonetheless exasperated last Tuesday that Biskupski had continued to be secretive about the proposal — unwilling, even, to tell Councilman James Rogers if it involved an elevated or street-level track.

The airport expansion is a “once-in-every-50-years opportunity,” said Councilman Derek Kitchen, a $3.1 billion (and growing) project that officials expected to integrate light rail to a degree rarely seen at the nation‘s airports.

“My big beef with the mayor is not so much that we‘re contemplating alternatives,” he said. ”It’s that they’re doing it without being clear with the public about what the situation is like. ... What I don’t want is for her to tie our hands without allowing the public to weigh in a little bit on this.”

Some more information was formally shared with the council members in recent days, and early indications are that some have doubts whether the lower-level track would provide the same high level of service they were sold on.

First, there would be an estimated service interruption of six to 15 months for construction that can’t take place until after the new terminal opens and existing structures are demolished.

Then, passengers would apparently alight at an outdoor stop 150 feet east of the terminal (in case the airport later expands the terminal’s baggage claim area) and walk around to a south side entrance before taking an escalator or an elevator up to ticketing on the second floor.

In the elevated proposal, most recently estimated to cost $67.4 million, there is an estimated service interruption of two weeks, and it would open in tandem with the new terminal in 2020.

Passengers would be let off across the street from the new terminal on the second level, and they would be able to immediately check in and check bags at a sort of mini-terminal before crossing a skybridge to departures.

(Courtesy of Salt Lake City International Airport) A rendering of the airport's proposed "Gateway Center," where ticketing and baggage-check counters would greet travelers arriving by car or on a light-rail extension — provided a new, cheaper light-rail extension proposal isn't selected instead.

Airport officials believe the differences in customer experience are minimal — or minimal enough, at least, that suffering them ought to be weighed against spending more than $50 million in additional funding that has yet to be identified. 

The street-level option “takes you right to the terminal,” Biskupski said. ”It certainly will provide convenience to passengers, and it will cost $50 million less than what was initially anticipated.”

The biggest knock, airport officials say, is the service interruption. But service would also be interrupted if UTA ran out of funding while building a costlier elevated extension, and in the nightmare scenario that the transit agency hadn’t yet finished a bridge over airport access roads, the inconvenience would be shared by motorists.

“We‘d have to shut off lanes,” said interim Airport Director Russell Pack.

Airport Director of Engineering Kevin Robins said Friday that for a street-level extension, a bus bridge would be needed for no longer than eight months — though UTA says construction would be nine to 15 months — and that officials may yet find a way to reduce the interruption to under six months.

(Courtesy of Salt Lake City International Airport) A rendering of the airport's proposed Terminal Drive, with the Utah Transit Authority's elevated TRAX train seen at left turning toward the airport's "Gateway Center."

The idea of a street-level extension is obvious to anyone looking at a map — just a left turn from where the line runs into the existing station. But at some point years ago, it was dismissed for its effect on a neighboring road to the airport’s loading dock.

The tracks would edge that loading road about 25 feet north, nearer to the parallel south concourse, making it more difficult for large planes to maneuver in and out of the gates between them.

But when Delta last year signed an agreement to use those gates, it became less of a concern: Given the vastness and variety of its fleet, Delta can reliably assign the gates to smaller planes like the Boeing 737 or Airbus A321.

“The airlines are very comfortable with this approach,” Pack said.

Over the past six months, an average of about 2,200 weekday riders arrived or departed from the airport station, according to UTA — which airport officials say includes many employees.

Biskupski said she had asked previous airport Director Maureen Riley, who retired two months ago, to find affordable alternatives to the elevated extension, “and I got pushback on that.”

“An alternative was never provided for me,” she said. ”It was like, this decision had been made before I came into office. It was our path forward.”

Riley declined an interview request for this story that was passed on through an airport representative.

The city’s airport engineers presented the new plan to UTA on Aug. 3, and UTA’s engineers expect to finish their review this week. UTA has expressed no qualms, however. It is a tidy solution for a debt-ridden agency that said it needed outside help to complete the elevated extension without sacrificing funding for other transit services.

Said Robins: “Nobody has found any sort of a fatal flaw here. It seems to be a reasonable solution that certainly delivers what the mayor asks.”

(Courtesy of Salt Lake City International Airport) A rendering of the terminal roadway at a rebuilt airport, with a Utah Transit Authority TRAX train pulling into the airport's "Gateway Center" and the new terminal unseen off to the right.

The deal would end a yearlong stalemate with UTA, during which Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie acted as a mediator between Biskupski — unwilling to commit city funds — and UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson, who’d raised the specter of service cuts in the capital city.

But the mayor’s vague presentation to the City Council last Tuesday was received poorly. The council had requested more information about the extension after hearing about a recent meeting involving Biskupski and Benson, and its members felt the mayor was not treating them as equals.

Biskupski said she had told Benson she would keep a lid on the details until he could present the option to UTA’s board members — they would be paying for it, after all — but Benson said there had been a “misunderstanding,” and that he had no problem having a public conversation about the outlines of the plan.

Pack and Robins said they, too, had heard UTA officials ask Biskupski for confidentiality, but Kitchen and other council members have argued that they are entitled to the same information as the mayor.

Said Council Chairman Stan Penfold on Friday: “I cannot understand why this had to be secret at any level of this conversation.”

“I‘m still working off bits and pieces of information — mostly from the press,” he said. “I want someone to sit in front of us and say, ‘Here’s the difference between these two proposals.’”

Some council members have privately suspected that they were kept at arm’s length because Biskupski believes they are more willing than she is to use city funds to pay for the elevated track — coming amid a wider debate between council and mayor over bonding and fiscal policy.

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