Proposal to create a statewide rail plan leaves station

(Lee Davidson | Tribune file photo) FrontRunner train arrives at Orem station as crowds wait to board on June 27, 2019.

Lawmakers took a first step Feb. 6 toward creating an integrated statewide rail system — that may help FrontRunner commuter trains to run twice as frequently and someday may even offer high-speed passenger trains between Salt Lake City and St. George and Moab.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-1 to advance SB92 to the full Senate.

It would order the Utah Department of Transportation to develop a “statewide comprehensive plan for public transit, freight, and any other use of fixed rail.” A fiscal note estimates that a study to start the process could cost $2.1 million over two years.

“Let’s take a full broad picture of everything and determine what we need to do,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi. Without better rail service as the state is expected to double its population in the next 30 years, he said, “We’re going to find ourselves in gridlock.”

Anderegg said he wants to look at newly allowed innovations such as combining future commuter and freight lines to make projects more affordable. He wants to look at ways to serve places that now lack services as northern Utah County, western Salt Lake County and Tooele County.

He wants to look at double-tracking key sections of the FrontRunner commuter train system, which now mostly runs on a single track. Double-tracking could allow trains to more easily pass each other and run up to every 15 minutes, plus allowing higher traveling speeds.

Gov. Gary Herbert this year proposed $34 million in his budget to start such double-tracking, but odds are against it surviving in the Legislature.

Anderegg also has said he wants to look at some admittedly now-pie-in-the-sky ideas in the long range including high-speed trains — 150 mph or faster — along the Wasatch Front, or even to Moab, St. George or California.

But “none of that makes any sense if the people in western Salt Lake County can’t get to work,” he told reporters earlier this week.

The senator said the state needs to develop faster and more reliable trains to persuade people to leave their cars and help reduce air pollution.

“If the vision isn’t to go from Ogden to Salt Lake in 20 minutes, we’re shooting for the wrong target,” Anderegg said earlier. “If we don’t have those kind of delivery times, your ridership will always be stagnant.”

Anderegg also wants initial studies to look at how rail lines can integrate with plans for the proposed new inland port in northwest Salt Lake City, and perhaps help spread out port operations to satellite spots along the Wasatch Front or into Tooele County. If it creates 30,000 more jobs, he said rail may be needed to deliver people to the port.

Also, Anderegg said he would like studies to look long-range at how to replace diesel fuel and move more toward electrification or other alternatives to help the environment.