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The Sugar House Streetcar

Sugar House in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a neighborhood with a reputation for community and history. The idea of a streetcar fits here. With a moderately dense population, walkable neighborhoods and robust redevelopment potential, this community welcomes transit. The name Sugar House is synonymous with Salt Lake City, but its neighbor, South Salt Lake City, a community of 22,000 residents and a partner in this project with approximately 50 percent of the proposed streetcar project, also has much to gain.

Located adjacent to the capital city of Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake City is just a few miles from the central business district of downtown. Many of the residents of South Salt Lake have been living there for a long time; long enough to watch as Interstate-15 divided their city in two and Interstate-80 divided their city again into even smaller pieces. Residents have recent memory of the inequity of transportation impacts, so the idea of a streetcar at first brought some skepticism from established residents who were afraid the streetcar would divide their city even more. But recently a new attitude has taken hold in the city, as the proposed streetcar is now seen as a way to bring access and mobility to a city facing numerous challenges. 

The demographics of South Salt Lake tell a story of a community with potential. According to the South Salt Lake City General Plan, the educational dropout rate is 28 percent among the existing population, 10 percent higher than in greater Salt Lake County; the median household income is 41 percent lower than in Salt Lake County; and 22 percent of residents are at or below the poverty level, compared with 10 percent in greater Salt Lake County. South Salt Lake City has also experienced declining sales tax revenues. Economic development is viewed by planners as a strategy to improve the quality of life and prosperity of city residents with the streetcar as a mechanism for change.

The idea for the Sugar House Streetcar was first brought to the cities and the Utah Transit Authority in the early 2000s by developers and community activists. The proposal: study a streetcar line to connect the existing light rail TRAX Station on the west, and the Salt Lake City community of Sugar House on the East, connecting along the way several areas proposed for redevelopment. Through an alternatives analysis process completed in 2007, each of the cities and the Utah Transit Authority selected a streetcar as a preferred alternative. Originally part of the third phase of the Wasatch Front’s fiscally constrained Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) to be completed by 2030, a Sugar House streetcar wasn’t to be developed for many years. However, due to the unanimous support and proven partnerships, as well as the streetcar’s performance in enhancing mobility and improving the opportunity for economic development, the project was moved to phase one of the LRTP.

The project consists of a modern streetcar line, two miles in length, which will connect a thriving regional commercial center (Sugar House business district) to the highly successful regional TRAX light rail system. This link will further strengthen the extent and intensity of use of the existing public transportation infrastructure as an increasingly competitive alternative to automobile trips. The project has features that meet both community and mobility goals. These include seven stops approximately 0.3 miles apart, service every 15 minutes during peak hours and every 30 minutes during off-peak hours. The western half of the corridor (in South Salt Lake) is characterized by a mix of aging warehouses, many of which are non-conforming to current city zoning, and light industrial uses, bordered by higher density residential neighborhoods.

When the project opens in early 2012, daily ridership is estimated to be approximately 3,000, rising to more than 4,000 in 2030. This streetcar also brings potential for development. Measuring that magnitude in ridership is crucial to understanding the universal benefits the cities will receive with this infrastructure investment. Using an activity-based approach (direct ridership forecasting) to predict ridership, the project team was able to examine the effects of a proposed 900-unit mixed-use development within South Salt Lake, and two developments proposed at the eastern terminus with more than 500 residential units, along with office and retail space. This method essentially connected the idea of economic development with improved mobility and access, and reflected the potential for approximately 50 percent higher ridership. 

Ridership and Travel Benefits

 

2012

2030*

Route ridership

3,000

4,070

Auto trips saved

820

1,100

New rail transit trips

1,545

2,100

 

 

In South Salt Lake this is big news. Though plans for the 900-unit development have slowed due to the economy, the plan for a streetcar has drawn numerous inquiries and several concrete proposals for development in this city. City planners believe the streetcar is a catalyst for the long-awaited desired urban development. Since plans for a streetcar were announced, several developers have expressed interest in the adjacent blocks, with desire to build mixed-use developments at an affordable scale for South Salt Lake residents. 

The addition of another transportation option through this city brings not only opportunity for redevelopment and increases in economic prosperity, but also improved access for the residents of the city. Improving mobility means improving access to neighborhoods and community assets. As shown in figure 1, the streetcar will deliver people to the following community assets either on the streetcar line or within two blocks of it:

Within ¼ mile

Within ½ mile

Sugar House business district (entertainment, shopping and office)

Large scale development (mixed use and regional shopping and entertainment)

Sugar House Park

Fairmont Park and Community Swimming Pool

Boys and Girls Club

Kearns/St. Anne's School and Church

Westminster College, a regional liberal arts college with approximately 2,000 students

Salt Lake Community College

Granite Education Center and Utah State University Extension

Columbus Community Center – which includes a library, senior and after school programs

 

With stops every other block, the project will increase connectivity to 132 miles of existing and planned rail service through the entire Salt Lake Valley. Rather than making the residents feel divided by transportation, this streetcar will move quietly through the community, serve its traveling public and provide better access to job centers in Sugar House, the central business district, Salt Lake City International Airport, as well in other job concentrations in the Valley.

 

Parallel to the Sugar House streetcar corridor is 2100 South, which is a Salt Lake City arterial. 2100 South has two lanes in each direction, with no center turn lane or median. Because Sugar House is a major destination in the valley, 2100 South is heavily used, and at typical peak hour in the study area, delay at critical intersections reaches level of service (LOS) E, and is predicted to reach LOS F in the future. The reduction of automobile trips resulting from the use of the streetcar will increase livability by easing congestion and will contribute to the improvement of air quality.

Improving access and choice has other indirect benefits to overall quality of life for all residents. The state of Utah, and the Wasatch Front in particular, are among the fastest growing regions in the United States. According to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget of the State of Utah, Salt Lake County grew by approximately 24 percent between 1990 and 2000, and an additional 14 percent between 2000 and 2008. By 2030, approximately 1.46 million people will call Salt Lake County home. Staggering growth has led to sprawl development patterns, increased vehicle miles traveled and a struggle to keep pace with the demand for transportation. Air quality is a continuing problem in the region, with many days exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. 

The Sugar House Streetcar is part of a larger transportation system that will promote sustainability in the Salt Lake metropolitan area. In September 2006 the EPA changed the 24-hour PM2.5 standard from 65 g/m3 to 35 g/m3. Under this stricter standard, several areas along the Wasatch Front have experienced violations of the new PM2.5 standard. The EPA will make final non-attainment designations by December 2009 and these designations will be effective April 2010. 2030 projections in the air conformity analysis of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) show passing levels of emissions, however passing levels assume that the recommended projects in the LRTP are built, and the streetcar is one of those projects. The Sugar House Streetcar will reduce dependence on oil by providing choice in travel. By 2030, based on the ridership numbers, an estimated 10,200 vehicle miles traveled per day will be avoided as a result of this project (an overall 460 gallons of gasoline saved on a daily basis). To the driver, this translates into approximately $5.00 a day in savings, or approximately $1,500 each year. This calculation is based on an average price of gasoline of $2.90, average trip length of 5.7 miles and an estimated eight trips per household per day.

The social equity of transit begins with a strong partnership. This project would not be possible without the strong cooperation between Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and the Utah Transit Authority. Though each community is unique, the partners in this project have the cohesive goals of providing transportation choice, enhancing economic development opportunities, creating more sustainable communities and improving quality of life. 

Robin Hutcheson is an associate with Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants.

 

 

 

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