UTA discards proposal for $1 billion TRAX at Point of Mountain; seeks bus rapid transit there instead

Conclusion comes after a year and a half of study.

Forget the proposed $1 billion TRAX line from Draper to Lehi, which was pushed mostly to spur development at the soon-to-be vacated state prison site at the Point of the Mountain.

The Utah Transit Authority, after a year and a half of study, concluded that it would be smarter to build a much less expensive bus rapid transit (BRT) system there instead to connect to other TRAX, FrontRunner and bus routes.

“They both would have economic and land-use benefits,” Patti Garver, Point of the Mountain Study project manager told the UTA Board last week. And projected “ridership was similar for both.”

The biggest difference: The 8-mile BRT is projected to cost between $300 million and $400 million, while revised estimates for an extended TRAX line are between $600 million and $850 million (while earlier estimates put it at up to $1.2 billion or more for a possibly longer line).

Also, Garver said a bus rapid transit line could be built more quickly and is less complicated.

With those advantages, the study chose bus rapid transit as its preferred alternative for transit through the Point of the Mountain. The agency now will seek buy-in from city councils in the area, regional planning agencies and a UTA advisory board of local leaders before the UTA Board makes that decision final.

Bus rapid transit is sometimes called a “TRAX on rubber wheels.” Buses are longer with an accordian-like connector for a rear section, often have road lanes exclusively for their use, have more doors to speed entry and exit, and require passengers to buy tickets at machines before boarding.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) One of UTA's Utah Valley Express (UVX) buses makes a stop in Orem, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2018.

The Utah Valley Express BRT system in Orem and Provo has rivaled the TRAX Green Line in Salt Lake County for ridership, but that may be helped because the UVX has enjoyed free fares since it opened because of a federal grant. It also offers service every 6 minutes at peak times, often quicker than TRAX.

UTA is about to build a BRT line between downtown Ogden and Weber State University, and is studying other possible BRTs from northern Utah County to Orem/Provo (which could tie into a Point of the Mountain system), and from Davis County to downtown Salt Lake City.

Garver told the UTA board that when people are inside a BRT bus, “You wouldn’t know that you are not on rail because the vehicles are almost like” train cars in design.

She adds that the Point of the Mountain BRT under consideration is “what we call a gold-standard BRT,” which would allow level boarding from a platform (instead of climbing stairs), exclusive lanes for almost 90% of its route and off-board fare collection.

Because of some geologic challenges that trains would face at the steep Point of the Mountain but a BRT bus would not, Garver said a BRT system would also be able to offer an extra station at the prison site area — and is another reason for selecting it as the preferred alternative.

UTA Board member Beth Holbrook asked if a BRT could be converted into a TRAX line someday if demand for that arose.

Garver said that while such conversion into a rail line is possible and often talked about when BRTs are proposed nationally, “In reality, it’s has not happened a lot. I think it’s because once cities get a BRT, they see that it’s meeting their needs and probably exceeding their expectations.”

UTA was pushed to conduct the study by state leaders as the state-sponsored Point of the Mountain Commission said replacing the state prison with proper development could generate billions in revenue throughout the Wasatch Front “if the right steps are taken.”

A study by Envision Utah for that commission said those “right steps” include about $3 billion in transportation improvements, including extending the Mountain View Corridor freeway and running TRAX through the area.

“If we fail, those 150,000 jobs [envisioned by growth at the prison site] could go somewhere else,” Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow told the commission in 2019. “We could see a significant degradation of the capacity to get around.”

Envision Utah President Ari Bruening added, “We’ve heard from a lot of employers that transit is a requirement for them to want to locate in a certain area. They are not willing to locate somewhere where there might be transit in 20 years.”