Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Anyone who drives from the west side of Salt Lake City to the east has been stuck at times at a train crossing — getting later and later for work — as rail cars filled with electronics or home goods lumber by.
But two Salt Lakers, one an engineer and the other a designer, have an idea that could end those headaches.
They imagine tearing up acres of rail yards in the capital city and replacing them with a new neighborhood. They want to return the historic Rio Grande Depot into an iconic train station. And those trains carrying all that freight would keep running — they would just roll by underground like the New York subway.
Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely call it “The Rio Grande Plan,” and it could transform Salt Lake City. It’s expensive and complicated, but it’s also audacious and elegant. Some top officials are skeptical. Others are enthusiastic.
“This is bold; this is transformative,” said Salt Lake City Council member Dan Dugan. “This is a once-in-a-generation change we need to make.”
“It is a fabulous idea,” council member Ana Valdemoros said. “I think it can revolutionize downtown.”
What is The Rio Grande Plan?
Lenhart started with two frustrations. One is the Utah Transit Authority’s Salt Lake Central Station at 325 S. 600 West. It’s an open-air hub connecting Amtrak trains and UTA FrontRunner commuter trains with buses and a TRAX light rail line.
The station is sparse and uninviting. And the city’s efforts to jump-start development on the blighted blocks around it haven’t yielded much yet, though there’s a new effort with the University of Utah to create an innovation district.
The biggest problem, Lenhart argues, is that this key transit hub is in the wrong place. It is sandwiched between Interstate 15 and the Rio Grande Depot, blocking it from any easy access to neighborhoods or the downtown area.
That leads to his second frustration. The depot, built in 1910, now houses state offices and archives. It carries some art exhibits. That’s pretty much it.
So Lenhart started thinking about what it would take to revitalize the Rio Grande and make it the glorious train station it once was. For starters, he would have to move the rail lines, and that would be hugely expensive. But it is possible, switching the lines to 500 West, right next to the depot, would be a straighter shot.
Then he had an epiphany. Crews could build a “train box” underneath 500 West. Bury the tracks and you ease driving between west and east. The city could replace the rail yard with new homes and businesses. That development would be a hefty source of revenue.
“It’s like one magic puzzle piece that fits in and the whole thing comes together,” Lenhart said of burying the tracks. “Once you do that, you have a project that’s financially viable. It’s safer, it’s more efficient, and it’s much better for the city. Why isn’t anyone doing this?”
He proposes burying the tracks starting at 100 South and having the trains reemerge at road level at 900 South. This would remove four street-level train crossings and greatly reduce the use of a fifth. It would also allow the state to eliminate three viaducts built so cars can drive up and over the tracks.
The train box would be 33 feet deep and allow for six tracks, with two dedicated to UTA’s FrontRunner, two for freight trains and Amtrak and two for future trains, such as a proposed Tooele to Park City line.
Once completed, the old rail yard would no longer be necessary, providing more than 70 acres west of downtown for development.
As Lenhart and Blakely put it, “A once-in-a-generation opportunity exists to reroute the tracks, reclaim the rail yards and reconnect our communities.”
How the plan came together
It’s hard to overstate how much Lenhart likes trains.
His 13th birthday coincided with the opening of UTA’s light rail. His present was getting to ride TRAX from the basketball arena in downtown Salt Lake City to Sandy, back and forth as much as he wanted. His family made a day of it.
“It was a formative moment for me,” he said.
When he needed a job in college, he went to UTA, getting on board as a train host, assisting passengers on the south line.
Now 34, he said his “happy place” is thinking about how a set of tracks could be moved to make them more efficient — not just in Utah but also throughout the country.
That’s why he was familiar with the “train trench” in Reno that buried freight trains that once split the Nevada city’s downtown in two. And he knew about the multimodal project in Denver that revitalized the historic Union Station and added an underground bus depot.
And it is how he found himself thinking about what Salt Lake City could do if it was “awesomely ambitious.”
Once he had his lightning strike moment, envisioning burying rails under 500 West, Lenhart decided he had an idea too big to keep to himself. So this civil engineer started writing and writing. So many words. But he couldn’t stop. He finished his 59-page proposal and put it on SkyscraperPage.com, a site where fellow planners and urbanists geek out.
After a while, Lenhart received a message from someone he had never met. It started like this, “Hey there, my name is Cameron. This is a bit unconventional, so I apologize in advance...”
Blakely, a 28-year-old urban designer, had read Lenhart’s manifesto — “It was quite wordy, but they were all good words” — and offered to turn it into a stunning visual of what Salt Lake City could become.
Blakely grew up on a farm in rural Idaho and while his siblings were playing with tractors and horses, he built little block cities.
“Cameron eventually delivered these really awesome graphic renderings. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Lenhart said. “Not only have I found a good friend, but I found a professional.”
Blakely dug in, trying to figure out what the natural pedestrian flow would be and where people could pick up a bus. He also added stylistic flair. He brought Lenhart’s idea of a modern glass canopy covering 500 West to life. This canopy would cover the spot where travelers would descend to the tracks below.
“I expected this thing to sort of die in obscurity. Some fan-fiction sort of thing that would be a ghost on the web forever,” Lenhart said. “But people are listening.”
That article won them meetings with City Council members and the Downtown Alliance, along with UTA and other organizations. In these conversations, Lenhart and Blakely, who have no financial interest in the plan, received praise but also faced some hard questions and skepticism.
The major roadblocks to implementing The Rio Grande Plan are:
• Getting everyone on board, including the state, the city, UTA, Union Pacific and others.
• Overcoming technical challenges, including the water table and rerouting of utilities.
• Covering the costs and who would pay.
Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, calls the plan “ambitious” and “audacious.” He loves the notion of removing barriers between the city’s west and east sides, and opening up land for development would be a big opportunity.
“We were quite taken with the plan when they originally shared it with us,” Brewer said, praising it for its sophistication.
“The costs are daunting,” he said. “And it begs the question of how this is prioritized among other needs in the community.”
UTA board Chair Carlton Christensen lives in the Rose Park neighborhood and used to sit on the City Council. He’s not sold. Even if it is technically feasible, he doesn’t think it is worth the investment.
“I want to be respectful of those who have come up with the design because I think their heart and their intent is definitely in a good place,” Christensen said. “So I don’t want to belittle their efforts, but I do feel like you have to put a practical application to it and whether or not it’s the best use of those resources.”
Union Pacific, which runs the freight trains, hasn’t seen the plan yet, so spokesman Mike Jackson, said, “We don’t really have a reaction.”
The Wasatch Front Regional Council, which helps with broad transportation planning, has seen it. Executive Director Andrew Gruber said the plan is “certainly intriguing.” And, like Christensen, he said it would need to be balanced against other needs.
He also worries that it could disrupt developments already planned in the area.
The planners’ response
The guys behind The Rio Grande Plan hope Utah’s project would cost somewhere in the middle of those cost estimates, but they are unsure.
What they do know is that UTA plans to add a second track to its commuter rail service, which is an expensive undertaking. Its Central Station needs upgrades, too. The viaducts will need maintenance.
They suggest their plan would save some of those costs. And they say burying the rails could be paid for by tapping federal infrastructure funds and some state appropriations, not to mention money from all the development that could be opened up, using a special tax district.
They say their plan is not as disruptive as some might imagine. The government would not need to acquire any land, since the construction would be under a street. The current rails would be unaffected so commerce would continue during construction.
And for those concerned about the water table, they say the parking garage at the nearby Gateway mall is deeper than the 33 feet they need to dig down. They also note that there’s a tunnel being built at the city’s new airport.
“With rising transit ridership, increasing rent prices, and unprecedented amounts of federal aid available,” their plan states, “the time is right for state and city leaders to act.”
They’ve heard over and over that they need to get the state on board. In response, they have revised their plan, complete with more of Blakely’s renderings. Now they are working with Salt Lake City Council members to push their idea to the next level.
Salt Lake City’s reaction
The Rio Grande Plan has two, well-placed champions on the council.
Not only are the existing tracks in Valdemoros’ district, but she also is the chair of the city’s Redevelopment Agency, responsible for revitalizing neighborhoods. Dugan is her vice chair.
Valdemoros wasn’t swayed immediately. Like officials at UTA and the Wasatch Front Regional Council, she was a bit daunted at first, thinking of the cost and the herculean task of getting so many government agencies and businesses to collaborate.
Still, the idea stuck. She kept thinking about it.
“This is very visionary,” she said. “This could be a legacy for this council and maybe for a council to come. We might not see it during our elected life.”
She’s trying to be a realist. From her RDA perch, she sees no conflicting development and she wants to use her power to make sure there isn’t one. She’s trying to plan ahead, particularly with the city’s significant holdings in the area, to ensure that nothing would interrupt The Rio Grande Plan — though she said it could be 30 years before the train box is built.
“Hopefully it is sooner,” she said, “but we are looking at this long term.”
Dugan is taking it on himself to set up more meetings where Lenhart and Blakely can pitch their plan.
“Now it is herding the cats together in one room to find out if it is feasible,” Dugan said, “and if we are up for a bold, transformative change in the city.”
Salt Lake City Planning Director Nick Norris encourages Lenhart and Blakely to submit their plan as part of an ongoing transportation planning process. If officially adopted, it would cement their proposal as a policy goal of the city.
“We’re looking forward to digging in further,” Norris said, “to what is an innovative idea and direction for the future of the Depot and Granary districts.”
A passion project
Lenhart and Blakely continue to tinker on this side project, which they call a “citizen proposal,” though Blakely said, “I feel very fortunate to have employers that have really supported us in this process.”
The encouragement they’ve received along the way has made them increasingly convinced that their plan will become a reality.
They know it remains in the early stages and that it would take many more revisions before it could ever move forward. They know that they would have to win over state leaders. And Union Pacific. And secure huge sources of funding. But Lenhart believes all of the obstacles will be overcome.
“Logic will win out,” he said, “in the end.”
So will sentimentality.
They both said their favorite part of the plan is bringing new life to the Rio Grande Depot. Blakely said he likes to daydream about passengers streaming in on a train, coming up to the ground level and seeing this modern glass enclosure that leads to an iconic station and then they walk out into a vibrant city.
A few months ago, the two got together in person for the first time. They ate Chinese food and talked excitedly about the Rio Grande. Asked by a reporter what else they have in common, they were initially stumped. This proposal had consumed all of their interactions so far.
At length, Lenhart said: “We both love Salt Lake City.”