First of all, can we call them trolleys instead of streetcars? Our traditional trolley cars were interesting, if not beautiful objects. At every opportunity, I voice my opinion to city staff working on the trolley project that our cars need to look good, preferably in a retro style that evokes our past.
There's a big difference between an ugly utilitarian object like a TRAX car and something with design and aesthetic quality. People aren't going to want trolleys in their neighborhood if they aren't cute.
Salt Lake City's first modern trolley line, from downtown Sugar House to Central Pointe TRAX, will open around the turn of this year. This line occupies an old rail corridor and will run alongside a pedestrian walkway and the Parley's trail. But this isn't the trolley we know, nor what we'll get in the future. It will be a borrowed TRAX car in a different color, and isn't technically a streetcar because it's not in the street.
Every other trolley proposal for the city that I've seen is actually a streetcar. The trolley, though, runs in the street, frequently sharing a lane with other vehicle traffic. The impact on people's streets and neighborhoods will be significant.
First, the positive: They will see their property values rise. In addition, they'll see an increase in convenience. Hopefully, car traffic will be slower and safer. These neighborhoods will also experience increased density, most likely limited to the trolley corridor. Most places in the United States have used streetcar lines to stimulate development hence they're called "development-oriented transit" instead of "transit-oriented development."
These consequences, positive and negative, are massive for people on the street that is chosen, in those neighborhoods, and city-wide. I am raising the alarm because the city is pushing ahead with a decision to route the trolley out of Sugar House with minimal community conversation. The mayor has requested, and the City Council leadership has assented, to vote on a locally preferred option to send the streetcar up 11th East to 17th South. There will be a public hearing before the council at 7 p.m. on April 23. Believe it or not, it'll go to a vote within a month.
Regardless of its merits relative to other options (13th East, 21st South), I think it is unconscionable to decide this route without putting it in the context of transit city-wide. I have said I will not vote on a Sugar House extension until we have gone through a community-wide conversation that results in a transit master plan being adopted by the council. That plan, the city staff tells us, is 18 months away. That is too long to wait, they say.
I can see why, due to a window of opportunity, the first Sugar House leg needed to be built without a city-wide plan: UTA had the right of way, the feds had the money, the city had the RDA. But the build-a-line-first philosophy seems to have morphed into "build as many as you can without a plan."
I ride a lot of trains, but I'm not on this one. It's anti-democratic and politically unwise. People deserve not only a sound-off (like two minutes in front of the City Council), but a place at the table. A master-planning process is the very opportunity to build that shared vision and political will.
Salt Lake City needs a robust discussion about streetcars, because trolleys will transform our city. This kind of transformation needs to come from within. It will fail if imposed from the top.
Luke Garrott is Salt Lake City Council member for District 4, and an avid pedestrian, biker and transit rider.