FrontRunner on track for $350M from Legislature to help speed, expand service

Project could allow doubling of trains if there is rider demand.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Transit Authority riders board the FrontRunner train in Ogden, Dec. 7, 2020. Lawmakers seem poised to commit $350 million to double-tracking the commuter rail system, which would allow more frequent trains.

Legislative support appears to be on track to set aside a hefty $350 million this year to start double tracking the Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner commuter rail system between Ogden and Provo.

No lawmaker spoke against it — and several spoke for it — in a discussion Friday as state officials portrayed the proposal championed by Gov. Spencer Cox and some legislative leaders as essential to handle future growth along the Wasatch Front.

“It’s absolutely critical to the continued success of our state today, but even more importantly, into the future,” said Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

“If our population is going to almost double in the next 35 to 40 years [as predicted], we don’t have the room, the money … to double the lane miles that we have out there” on freeways and highways, he added. So increasing the capacity and speed of FrontRunner could be vital.

About 70% of the 90-mile FrontRunner system now runs on a single, shared track, so trains may pass each other only at stations and a few sidings. A delay at one station can cause a ripple effect of delays down the entire line.

FrontRunner trains may now run about every half-hour at most. Double-tracking could cut that in half, to allow service every 15 minutes.

Andrew Gruber, director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, a transportation planning agency, said that “increasing the capacity, the speed, the frequency of FrontRunner service” would give commuters a practical alternative to automobiles.

“The majority of people will drive. But we have to provide options for people to take transit,” he said. “This helps with our traffic congestion. It helps with our air quality.”

Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, said double-tracking “FrontRunner is going to be much more cost effective than trying to acquire property rights and condemn property to expand the [Interstate 15] corridor.”

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, who also is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said, “Transit is a very important component” for handling future growth, and he expects lawmakers will use available cash plus some borrowing to boost it.

The only voice questioning the big spending for double-tracking was George Chapman, a citizen watchdog who attends most meetings of the Utah Transit Authority Board and often complains it focuses on expensive rail projects favored by developers instead of prioritizing more affordable neighborhood bus routes.

Chapman complained that FrontRunner only attracts 5,000 riders a day now — and isn’t expected to increase much for years — and the big money to double-track would be better spent on needed east-west freeways.

“I urge you to be fiscally responsible and respectful to the taxpayers of Utah and not provide funding for the FrontRunner double tracking,” Chapman said.

Legislators also favorably disposed to spend another $50 million this year toward improving transportation in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

A study is underway evaluating whether to use enhanced bus service, a gondola or a cog railway up those canyons to reduce congestion during ski seasons. Braceras said all of them would require new mobility hubs, which he said is “a fancy name for a big parking garage” where skiers could board mass transit.

He said the requested $50 million would go to mobility hubs, since they are needed for any of the proposed new systems up the canyon.

Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, who represents an area where traffic backs up from skiers, said, “I just want to say how glad I am to hear that we’re still focusing on those mobility hubs” to help her area.