A week ago, the Salt Lake City Council voted 4-3 to extend the Sugar House Streetcar north along 1100 East to 1700 South. I was one of three votes in the minority. I believe an extension east up 2100 South made more sense.
But last Tuesday I put that preference aside and made a motion to extend the streetcar only from its current endpoint near McClellan Street, up Sugarmont to Highland Drive (about 1125 East and 2250 South), and to stop there until the citywide transportation plan is complete.
It became apparent to me during this process that the city's public engagement was lacking at best. While small focus groups consisting of individuals in the immediate proximity to smaller projects can work well, this approach has proven ineffective on larger projects that have much broader impact.
Salt Lake City government must understand that a different approach to public engagement on large projects is necessary or we will continue to see the same types of public outrage we saw with the initial siting of the Public Safety Building, the once-proposed Sunnyside Avenue "road diet," the restoration of Miller Park and the Sugar House Streetcar. Each of these projects began following a very similar, limited public engagement process, and each has seen overwhelming public opposition to the proposals from those whose voices had not been sought early on.
The public outcry regarding the streetcar was more than just individuals who didn't want the project close to them, though there were those. It consisted of many who justifiably felt that more public engagement and education were necessary before moving forward. They are correct.
While waiting on an extension would have delayed the ability of the city to apply for and secure federal grant money to help build the project, there is currently no known federal money available. It's true that with federal financing, things move fast, but for me the risk of losing out on potential money wasn't worth the gamble of alienating the public who will be asked to use and later pay for an extension.
Platitudes of making an immediate decision for clean air are hollow. We all want cleaner air. We know that cleaner air is all of our responsibility. But rushing a project that is at best four to five years away supposedly because of air quality is disingenuous. If clean air were the primary reason for the streetcar, using natural gas buses would be nearly as efficient and a lot less expensive.
I strongly believe that providing more education and notice of proposed projects early in the process will help avoid much of the anger and animosity that we're seeing. There will always be those who disagree with a decision and don't like a particular direction. It's impossible to please everyone all of the time. But with more notice and education, at least people who disagree with a decision will know their voice and opinions were heard.
I appreciate everyone who participated early on in the streetcar discussions, and those who took part as soon as they became aware of the pending decision. We live in Salt Lake City because we love it. It's our home. I will continue to push for earlier and greater public engagement in city projects so that we can avoid such rancor in the future.
Charlie Luke is a member of the Salt Lake City Council representing District 6.