Commuter rail: Once a gamble, TRAX ingrained in Wasatch Front's future

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The night before the first TRAX train began shuttling people between downtown Salt Lake City and Sandy was an agonizing one for Utah Transit Authority officials.

"We were worried, just worried," said UTA Assistant General Manager Mike Allegra. "I couldn't sleep because you just didn't know if anybody would use it."

Allegra and UTA general manager John Inglish knew the Salt Lake Valley needed light rail, but numerous protests and fervent opposition to TRAX persisted right up to the Dec. 4, 1999, opening.

That day, though, thousands of people crowded the then-Delta Center station to ride the trains along the 17-mile route -- so many that the inaugural kinks included stranded people, trains stopped in the middle of tracks and hundreds turned away.

It was a hit, Inglish said.

"That was so heartwarming, to see the community embrace this new alternative, this change," Allegra said.

In the decade since, that single north-south line has expanded to include lines to the University of Utah and a downtown inter-modal hub, which links TRAX to the commuter rail, FrontRunner.

Also, more Utahns have hopped aboard the trains: About 500,000 people rode TRAX each month when it first started; monthly ridership now exceeds a million.

Construction is under way to expand the network to 10 times its original reach.

That boom in construction and support for TRAX makes Inglish and Allegra chuckle when they stand at the 1300 South station and remember the day they broke ground at the stop and protesters shouted at them and held signs claiming that "Light rail kills children."


Backbone of mass transit » UTA officials already have a broad vision for what the upcoming decades will hold. Train tracks, either light or commuter rail, will be the backbone of a network that will include streetcars, buses and bus-rapid transit, as well as pedestrian and bike ways across the Wasatch Front, Inglish said. Eventually, he wants 90 percent of the urban population within one mile of public transportation.

"You won't need a car, but you'll still want to have one," Inglish said, adding the best transit solution is a mixture of both.

For the past seven years, Joan Showalter's daily commute has been far simpler. The 56-year-old legal secretary drives to the 10000 South stop in Sandy and rides TRAX to the Gallivan Center station.

The TRAX ride takes about 30 minutes, which is a bit longer than driving and was something Showalter had to get used to. Though the Sandy-to-Salt Lake City highway drive might be 13 minutes most of the time, rush hour is another matter.

"It's a lot less stressful and I feel like I get something done during the day," she said while holding a book in her seat at the front of a full car.

Showalter has seen public transportation avidly used in other areas, but she admits, "I never thought it would work here because people are too attached to their cars ... it's been a pleasant surprise to see how it's worked."

That "love affair" Americans have with their cars is often touted, but Inglish said it's an idea that's overblown. Who, he asked, can really be enamored with sitting in traffic and simmering with road rage?

Trains are convenient, frequent, reliable and speedy. "You have all of the elements that Americans are looking for in a transportation system," Inglish said, adding light rail runs on schedule 98 percent of the time compared with buses, which might top 80 percent.


The 'Phoenix project'» In the late 1970s, light-rail projects started appearing in various North American cities. After traveling and studying those systems, Inglish thought trains could work in Utah, too. Plans began to grow in 1984 for a Salt Lake County north-south line, but hit a bump in 1992 when voters rejected a sales tax hike that would have funded construction on the light-rail corridor, as well as expanding the bus network and Interstate 15 improvements.

"We didn't have any funding, but we still had the same problem," said Allegra, about the growing congestion in the county.

So, UTA continued pushing for light rail.

Though the up-front building costs are far greater with light rail than with buses, since the road is already in place, trains are "the more economically viable option" in the long run, about 30 years, Inglish said.

Once networks have been built, each train car can haul 200 people, and most TRAX trips include links of four cars.

Buses usually seat fewer than 75 people. Per trip, Inglish said, it costs $1.25 to move each person on light rail, compared to between $3 and $4 on a bus.

With too little support from Salt Lakers, UTA turned to the federal government. A couple of months after Salt Lake City was selected in 1995 to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Federal Transit Administration agreed to fund 80 percent of the capital costs on the $312 million project.

In 1997 construction began, and the following year, the four-lane Main Street was shut down to construct platforms and tracks for the trains, as well as separate utility work.

"It was harrowing," said Catherine Weller, an owner of Sam Weller's Bookstore on Main Street, who saw other nearby stores close down during that period. The problem was there was poor planning, she said, and Main Street hasn't bounced back since then, though there have been other factors outside of TRAX affecting that.

"No matter how terrible it was," Weller said of construction, "we continue to be supporters of TRAX and mass transit initiatives."

It's a support that has become more widespread, say UTA officials. Voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase in 2000 and again in 2007 to accelerate TRAX construction.

"The public is stepping up," Inglish said. "They're saying, 'We want it now.' "

The early skepticism about TRAX has evolved into conservative business groups and local governments clamoring to have rail running through their communities, he said.

"It's now a part of life, people expect it."

But rail doubts have lingered.

"I don't think it's done any great favors to transit down here," said Salt Lake City resident Stephen Pace, who led the anti-rail group Utahns for Responsible Public Spending. He said UTA should have focused instead on buses that have the same right-of-way preference over cars as trains, but are more flexible and require a less massive investment.

Pace rails against the "so-called" elected officials who champion fiscally conservative values but are "just as deep in the federal trough as anybody else" to fund TRAX extensions into their communities.

But that popular support is testament to TRAX's success, say regional planners.


Getting there » There are TRAX extensions under construction that would run through Salt Lake City's west side, West Valley City, Midvale, West Jordan and South Jordan. One is being proposed into Draper.

Also, TRAX trains have linked up to commuter rail. FrontRunner trains travel north to Pleasant View in Weber County, and work has already started on a southern route that would transport people at freeway speeds to Provo.

"The suburbs are trying to serve residents wanting to get access," to mass transit, said planning director Gabe Epperson of the sustainability group Envision Utah. "A lot of communities are changing city plans around existing or future TRAX stops. They've changed their zoning and created transit-oriented development zones around their stops."

Those TOD zones were touted more than a decade ago when TRAX was first proposed.

"It has started a little slower than we'd like," said UTA's Allegra. The plan was to have UTA and cities partner with builders to create developments that mixed housing and businesses and supplied people with quick and close access to public transit.

The Gateway in Salt Lake City is an example of such a project, but most cities are still far from seeing those large-scale projects built.

"The economy is terrible, but it's perfect for the planning" aspect of these developments, said Allegra, noting he has seen smaller housing and condominium buildings dot the TRAX corridor.

In Midvale, the Center Street housing development was meant to be a small-scale version of a TOD, but a bank owns the unfinished project, said Mayor JoAnn Seghini.

But even in that city, a WinCo grocery store already opened at Bingham Junction, a multi-use project on a 203-acre site that was formerly contaminated.

"We pushed very hard to get [the Mid-Jordan TRAX line] so that it would go across what was a former Superfund site," Seghini said, adding that light rail is a boon to economic development.

And more of those TOD projects will be needed as Utah doubles in size by 2040, said planner Epperson.

Keeping populations concentrated will mean far cheaper utility costs, he said, since building longer lines is more expensive. Reducing the amount of developed land has a huge impact in helping conserve water and reducing air pollution, Epperson added.

"That wouldn't be possible without the evolving and expanding rail system," he said.

Don't leave buses behind » But with the additions and expansions made in rail service, Main Street business owner Weller said she hopes bus service isn't sacrificed for car-less or late-night workers or in working-class neighborhoods.

"I think that TRAX has succeeded as a tool for commuters," Weller said, adding she applauds UTA for that, though many of her workers could use more frequent trains later in the day.

Commuters are what UTA should be addressing with light rail, said planner Epperson.

"We don't have a traffic problem as a region," he said, "our problem is with commuting."

Buses aren't as desirable for that kind of travel because they have to compete with road traffic, Epperson said.

Midvale resident Juan Carlos Ranjel uses buses or light-rail as his sole means of getting around. TRAX works well for when the 50 year old works as a supervisor at a downtown restaurant or janitor at the University of Utah, he said -- "It's the best. It's comfortable."

But when he wants to go to other parts of the valley, Ranjel takes buses and complains they run too infrequently and that one trip to Layton took double the time getting back.

Changes are made to bus service, but UTA is legally mandated not to disproportionately affect low-income people through changes, Inglish said.

Though routes have been altered and criticism has followed, those are often improvements that take people time to get used to, he said.

In fact, Inglish added, light rail has helped increase the use of public transportation across UTA.

In the early '90s, about 25 percent of people had used mass transit in the past year, he said of a survey that was repeated more recently since TRAX was available. Those subsequent numbers show around 75 percent of people have used UTA.

Light rail has drastically shifted how many people look at public transportation, Inglish said. "It's hard to believe it's 10 years old."

The history and future of TRAX

From a controversial beginning and despite rejection of a funding plan, light rail has grown in ridership and expanded in reach. As TRAX celebrates its 10th anniversary Friday, many communities are clamoring for TRAX extensions and FrontRunner is providing the inter-city link up and down the Wasatch Front.