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This streetcar could be named Discord.
Set against a landscape of numerous transportation challenges, a proposal to spend another $15 million on the Sugar House Streetcar boiled over in frustration last week at the Salt Lake City Council.
The $37 million S-Line that opened to fanfare last December in Salt Lake City has been an under-performer, garnering about one-third the projected ridership. It runs from the TRAX Central Pointe Station at 200 West and 2100 South to 2250 S. McClelland St. (1050 East) along an old freight line.
In a 4-3 vote, the council supported the $4.5 million match that Mayor Ralph Becker will use to apply for a $10.6 million federal transportation grant, known as TIGER funding.
The topic reignited the spirited debate about how the city will meet its other future transportation challenges.
What's up for consideration includes a proposed streetcar from the University of Utah to downtown that would then head toward 900 South and a bus rapid transit (BRT) line from the U. to downtown that would turn north to Davis County.
Not least is the repeated question of why these bold transit initiatives are being planned while bus service in many city neighborhoods is sorely lacking.
A year ago, the council sought a transit master plan. The Becker administration says that plan is still a year away from completion.
Although the city can push streetcar and BRT plans, it relies on the Utah Transit Authority for bus service. But a majority of the council now says that must change.
UTA split? • Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said the seven-member body "turned a leaf" this week with the realization that the city would have to find solutions to bus service with or without the UTA.
"They have no distinct desire to address our local [transit] needs," she said in an interview. "That just opened a can of worms."
Mendenhall, who voted for the additional S-Line funding, said discussions on a downtown streetcar, a BRT line and other initiatives are not taking place in a vacuum despite the lack of a transit master plan.
"We have a great [city] transportation department. They know where people are moving," she said, referring to data on traffic volumes, routes and destinations.
But Councilman Luke Garrott, who was among the prime movers in funding a transit master plan, doesn't agree.
"It's maddening to talk about BRT on 200 South and a streetcar on 100 South [that run parallel to TRAX]," he said. "We don't have a plan and I'm boiling over."
The Becker administration has not sought enough public input, he said, on the S-Line or the other initiatives
"We're cramming this down people's throats and hoping people will come," he said in an interview. "A community conversation builds good will, rather than the administration telling people what is going to happen."
Long a proponent of alternatives to UTA, Garrott said that transit should be "part of the community, not alien to it."
"We are estranged from the UTA," added Garrott, who is exploring a possible mayoral bid next year.
Councilwoman Lisa Adams, whose District 5 encompasses much of Sugar House, called the Sugar House Streetcar "a little bit of a white elephant," in an interview. She criticized the UTA for not operating the S-Line more frequently as well as earlier in the morning and later at night.
Adams voted against additional funding.
After taking office in January, she and Mendenhall, along with James Rogers, were given a newcomers' orientation by various city departments, including the Redevelopment Agency. Officials from the RDA described the streetcar as an "economic-development tool," she recalled, rather than a mode of mass transit.
"Without a master plan," she said, "we don't know how [the S-Line] will be incorporated into a broader network."
Into the future • But west-side Councilman Kyle LaMalfa believes the S-Line will be successful. "Reports of the death of the streetcar are greatly exaggerated," he quipped. "If they don't want the streetcar in Sugar House, I would love to have it run from 400 West to Indiana Avenue or California Avenue."
Among the challenges, he said, is that city leaders must look decades into the future to meet transportation needs of a population that will be much larger. Building out a streetcar network is expensive and takes time. Meanwhile, residents have transportation needs now.
"We can't stop everything and wait for a master plan," he said. "If we did, it would gum up the works."
LaMalfa agrees with Mendenhall that once the line is extended to Highland Drive and some 1,000 new apartments and condos open in Sugar House, as scheduled, streetcar ridership should climb steadily.
"In the next decade, there may be 10 times that many [housing units]," LaMalfa said. "Where are you going to put 10,000 cars?"
The swing vote in last week's streetcar funding measure was Council Chairman Charlie Luke, who appeared to be leaning toward a "no" vote before finally endorsing the match money. But after the squeaker, Luke said he would not vote to fund a further extension of the S-Line until there is a comprehensive plan for the line.
The controversial S-Line extension north on 1100 East to 1700 South appears to be on hold at least until the streetcar gains public support. That might not be an easy feat, he said.
"The S-Line has the potential of causing the death of any streetcar in the city," Luke said in an interview. "We should have done it right the first time. We shouldn't have pieced it out."
City Hall spokesman Art Raymond said the administration understands that transportation changes can be concerning to residents and businesses.
But he added that the S-Line as now configured isn't a traditional streetcar because it is not running in the street, much like a bus would. Once the public sees the S-Line on Highland Drive and other streets, it will see it as an alternative to driving. The administration is confident that ridership will improve, Raymond said.