On a sun-kissed Sugar House street corner, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood shined 26 million rays of light Wednesday on a once-thriving Salt Lake City hub rendered weak by the recession.
By signing a $26 million check for a Sugar House streetcar line, LaHood is helping to resuscitate both a century-old transit model and, potentially, one of the capital city's iconic neighborhoods.
There was little doubt from the clap-happy crowd of 100 huddled around the Sugar House monument.
"Since the buildings on the corner have been gone, we sure felt it," said Kathryn Allen, manager of the nearby furniture store Home Again. "It will bring a lot more pedestrians. It will revive Sugar House."
Light even gleamed off the puddle circling the much-derided "Sugar Hole" across the street. That vacant lot on the corner of 2100 South and Highland Drive was the symbolic heart of a more-vibrant Sugar House before shops were bulldozed and construction financing put out of reach.
"I expect it to raise our property values," smiled Tamisa Burns, whose backyard on Simpson Avenue abuts the streetcar route. "We're really excited to be able to ride it to TRAX and take it to the Utes game and not drive. This will add character."
It also checks a key box on Washington's transportation map, designed under President Barack Obama to be a web of new transit connections funded largely with stimulus funds.
"You're a model now, you really are," LaHood told the crowd, praising the partnership of Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and Utah Transit Authority for planning the two-mile line between the old Granite furniture block and Central Pointe TRAX station near 2100 South and 200 West. "Americans can still build great things."
LaHood, who was "impressed" after touring the route, said the streetcar will be a lifeline for jobs and more. "They're reviving the same neighborhoods they once helped create."
In this case, it also will buoy a long-planned trail that will parallel the tracks on its way to connect Hidden Hollow in Sugar House with the Jordan River Parkway.
"We're now working on it much more aggressively," said Juan Arce-Larreta, chairman of PRATT, the Parley's Rails, Trails and Tunnels coalition. "It was an idea, but it didn't really have legs. This will fast-track it."
Barbara Green, secretary of the Sugar House Merchants Association, called it fitting to focus the streetcar on one of the city's historically most colorful commercial corridors. She thanked LaHood for investing in "this unique pocket of Salt Lake City."
But the project does not come without concerns. If the streetcar line stimulates business, traffic congestion is sure to follow. Some homeowners worry about crime and sacrificed privacy. And Burton Brown, who lives on Simpson Avenue, worries about beeping crossing arms that could "drive me nuts."
"I support it," he said, "as long as it's done right."
Total cost for the project is pegged at $55.5 million. The check from the feds plus a $5 million contribution from Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake make up $31 million. Another $18 million comes from UTA between the agency's 2002 purchase of the corridor and its funding for three streetcars, according to agency spokesman Gerry Carpenter.
That leaves about $6 million, which Carpenter says may be reduced in the bidding process due to low costs of materials. "We're confident we can get there," he said.
But officials are not taking any chances. Moments after LaHood signed the cardboard check, UTA General Manager Mike Allegra yelled, "where's the nearest Sugar House bank?"