The Utah Transit Authority board is taking a big step toward planning how, when and where to expand its TRAX and streetcar systems — even though it had promised in recent years to focus most expansion efforts instead on buses after amassing $2 billion in debt for train systems.

The board approved a $399,673 contract Wednesday with LTK Engineering for what documents call a comprehensive analysis of the future of UTA’s light rail network “to determine which improvements UTA should pursue in both the near and long term.”

The agency said it aims to evaluate a variety of train projects that have been penciled into long-range plans through the years, possible alignments of new extensions and possible locations for new stations, plus possible fleet and operations modifications. Officials said they especially seek to look at changes that could improve operations and service.

For example, TRAX trains currently cannot increase how often they run because all three of its lines share the same rails through downtown Salt Lake City. UTA would like to evaluate moving the Green Line to a separate north-south alignment between 700 South and the Salt Lake City Central Station to see how that may allow adding faster service everywhere.

“UTA’s light rail network, which just celebrated its 20-year anniversary, has become a backbone of UTA’s transit system, carrying over 60,000 riders per day,” said a memo to the board from Mary DeLoretto, the agency’s acting chief service development officer.

“Although TRAX and streetcar have been very successful, the light rail system must adapt to a growing region and evolving travel patterns to retain and improve its vital function,” she wrote.

DeLoretto noted that a variety of TRAX and streetcar projects proposed over the years and penciled into long-range plans “have not been examined holistically from a cost-benefits perspective.”

She said the new study aims to do that.

In recent years as UTA successfully sought sales tax increases, it promised that it would use the extra money mostly to improve bus service as sought by critics — and said expensive expansions of rail lines were essentially complete for now.

But business and government officials recently have pushed for rail line extensions they say will fuel more quality development.

Last year, the Point of the Mountain Commission pressed for a $1.2 billion TRAX extension through the site of the soon-to-be-replaced state prison and on to Lehi, saying redeveloping that area could generate billions in revenue and create tens of thousands of jobs “if the right steps are taken.”

A study by Envision Utah for that commission said those “right steps” included about $3 billion in transportation improvements, including extending the Blue Line TRAX line through there to Lehi and extending the Mountain View Corridor freeway nearby.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The board was told that findings from that ongoing Point of the Mountain study will also help with the new study about the future of other TRAX and streetcar projects — and how each may affect the others, and connecting bus service. They said it will not duplicate work.

Loose long-range plans through 2050 developed by the Wasatch Front Regional Council include many possible TRAX and streetcar projects. Among them are:

• Extending the current Sugar House streetcar line, called the S-Line, so that it forms a loop toward the University of Utah and into downtown Salt Lake City.

• Extending the S-Line to Millcreek.

• Extending TRAX west of the Salt Lake City International Airport down the west side of the valley south to the Daybreak area of South Jordan.

• Also extending TRAX from Daybreak south to Herriman and then looping eastward to Draper.

• Extending TRAX from its Salt Lake City Central Station eastward along 400 South to Main Street, which would end up creating a TRAX loop around the downtown area when combined with existing lines.

• Creating a Black Line TRAX, mostly using existing facilities, directly between the Salt Lake City International Airport and the University of Utah.