Davis TRAX or streetcar under study again

Transit • Looking down the road — or the rails — at the county's future.
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Imagine a streetcar or TRAX line running through Bountiful, Woods Cross and North Salt Lake that ties into the existing TRAX system near the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.

Those communities and the Utah Transit Authority are taking a step toward making that a reality — but probably far in the future, and after conversion from an initial, cheaper-to-build "bus rapid transit" (BRT) line, sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels.

Officials are working out details to join in a $450,000 study on whether to build such a line, where the alignment should be, whether it should be a streetcar, TRAX or BRT —¬†and what kind of economic impacts it could have. That "alternatives analysis," assisted by a $360,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration, is expected to be completed next year.

It's not the first time the idea has been studied, and a 2010 study led to opposition further north in Centerville and Farmington. The new study will not include those areas.

"We never force these sorts of things down communities' throats. We only want to go where communities want to partner and embrace potential projects," said Matt Sibul, chief planning officer for UTA.

Sibul noted that long-range plans by the Wasatch Front Regional Council currently include a project that would initially be "bus rapid transit" from EnergySolutions Arena to North Salt Lake, along US-89 there and in Woods Cross to Main Street in Bountiful toward Centerville. Plans envision most of that to be built 20 to 30 years in the future, and later converting it into a rail project.

Sibul said the upcoming study will look at what transit modes would be best; "how it might potentially go from bus rapid transit to rail in the far future;" and would take "a fresh look at what the alignment might be, again working with the locals and addressing what the concerns might be."

It will also look at costs and potential economic impacts from various options. "There will be a robust level of public involvement," Sibul said.

UTA currently operates only one bus rapid transit project — on 3500 South in West Valley City — but is planning many more throughout the Wasatch Front. Such projects use bus-only lanes in roads. Tickets are sold before boarding at machines. Entry and exit is allowed at multiple bus doors. Stops are less frequent and farther apart than those for normal buses. Drivers may manipulate traffic signals somewhat to speed their journey.

While cheaper to build than TRAX, bus rapid transit can still get caught in traffic,tend to be slower and carry fewer people than rail.

Also, Davis County Commissioner Louenda Downs said bus stops may not attract as much new development around them as rail stops.

For example, Davis County Commission Chairman P. Bret Millburn, who is also vice chairman of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, notes the under-construction Sugar House streetcar project in Salt Lake City already attracted a projected half-billion dollars in new development near its stops — something bus stops do not do.

What could delay a streetcar or TRAX — and force longer use of the cheaper BRT — is that Davis County has a lower sales tax rate for transit than does Salt Lake County, so less money is available for such projects.

For every $1 dollar spent in Davis County, the Utah Transit Authority now collects just over a half cent in sales tax — 0.55 cents to be exact. In Salt Lake County, taxpayers have approved collecting just over two-thirds of a cent per dollar — 0.68 cents.

With greater tax collections and bonding, Salt Lake County has seen TRAX extensions completed to West Valley City and Daybreak and projects underway to Draper, Salt Lake City International Airport, as well as the Sugar House streetcar.

That may also make a big difference in overall community development as regional planners seek to make mass transit stations the centers of new growth and want to cluster homes, work, play and shopping close to them. They say that would help handle the expected 65 percent population growth in the next 30 years with less traffic congestion and pollution.

"In order for Davis County to be a player," Millburn said, increasing the transit sales tax likely will likely have to be addressed "some time."

Downs said a few years ago voters in the county made it clear how they felt about a transit tax increase: "the two-letter word, 'No.'"

She said gauging support for such an increase is an option in the future. But maybe not too soon.

"We certainly don't want to raise any kind of a tax in this [slow economic] environment," she said. "But if the needs become very obvious, that could change."