SALT LAKE CITY - The people of this city were convinced light rail wouldn’t work.
Voters rejected plans for light rail. And elected leaders nearly wiped the rail off transportation planning maps.
But transit planners cobbled together support to open 15 miles of light rail in 1999. Since the first train swooshed passengers from the city’s austere Mormon Temple into the graffiti-covered industrial sites in the suburbs, public perception has never been the same of a system called TRAX.
Ridership has exceeded projections by 65 percent. Voters in three counties raised taxes to build more rail after seeing how it worked. And a survey shows 76 percent of Utahans have a favorable impression of TRAX.
Salt Lake’s experience got the attention of the nation’s transportation planners, who held a national conference here in part because of the system’s success. Valley transit officials also made the trip to learn lessons as they prepare to break ground in April on a 20-mile track through Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix.
The trip, along with others, shows promise and peril. Valley transportation officials said they’re going to start working with the public next month to ensure the Valley gets the benefits of rail without putting businesses and neighborhoods through a painful construction that many merchants are still bitter over.
"We went out there and we’ve got their lessons learned, what worked, what didn’t work," said Alex Patane, a communications specialist with Valley Metro Rail.
The line in Salt Lake City carries passengers to shopping, restaurants, the University of Utah, suburbs, an industrial slum and a bustling downtown. Two extensions have been added to the line since 1999, include a 1.5-mile stretch that opened Monday from the university to the University Medical Center.
On the downtown’s Main Street, businesses love the line even as they complain construction nearly ruined them. They warn anybody else who wants to build a rail to have a more thoughtful approach than Salt Lake City.
"Unless it’s handled properly, there will be devastating effects on business," said John Speros, a Main Street restaurant owner.
A CLASSY RIDE
Four years after construction, TRAX gives downtown a cosmopolitan flair.
Salt Lake’s rail cars quietly swoosh across the city. Trains are as long as a city block, but they usually make less noise than a bus because they’re powered by overhead wires. Bells clamor when they cross roads, and traffic signals turn red so the trains don’t get stuck at red lights.
Trains nearly always arrive on schedule, which is every 15 minutes in most cases.
The train stops every few blocks downtown and isn’t much faster than a car. But it slashes commute times from the suburbs, where it quickly accelerates to 55 mph and stops every mile or so at a park-and-ride lot.
The trains are clean, and transit workers pass through to pick up the occasional discarded newspaper. Some riders chat with each other in seats that face each other. Men in business suits read Harry Potter. College students heave backpacks and study before class. Teenagers board with skateboards, bicycles and guitars.
"Men stand up for ladies and the elderly," said Heather Allen, 25, who rides TRAX from suburban Sandy to a downtown office building. "Everybody is real considerate."
TRAX’s main success — and problem — is ridership.
The line was expected to carry 18,700 riders a day, but it has attracted 31,000. Trains are so full at rush hour that commuters must stand, including on the steps when passengers board the train. Rail cars are often packed beyond rush hour.
"And they said it would be a waste of money, nobody would ever ride it," said Ruth Flynn, 36, who shook her head as she looked at a full train on a mid-afternoon trip through the line’s suburban stretch.
"I’ve never seen it not full," Allen said.
The 25-minute ride saves Allen time, but she said she doesn’t know how much. The train is so convenient she’s never tried to drive to work during rush hour.
The trains were vital during the 2002 Olympics, and they remain popular ways for people to get to the Delta Center for concerts and basketball games.
"It’s incredible to see 1,000 people leave a Jazz game, step onto the platform and have the train inhale them," said Rich Christensen, rail operations supervisor with the Utah Transit Authority.
But the existing fleet of 34 cars isn’t enough, so the authority is buying 36 additional vehicles.
"We’re struggling to meet demand," said Brandon Bott, an authority spokesman.
Officials are also planning a 40-mile commuter rail line to Ogden by 2007.
Surrounding communities are pushing to get the next of several commuter or light-rail lines that are expected in a 30-year transportation plan.
But rail took a toll on downtown Salt Lake City.
Construction rendered eight blocks of Main Street impassable for six months. Sales dropped as much as 50 percent in some shops.
"Nobody came downtown," said Speros, owner of Lamb’s Grill Cafe. "It was devastating."
Four years later, the tidy, tree-lined Main Street sports many empty storefronts where businesses failed and remain vacant.
Many business owners who survived said authorities botched rail construction by trying to build it without accommodating businesses.
But times are good for survivors. Customers who refused to drive downtown now take the rail to shops and restaurants they’d never visited, Speros said. Merchants boast of their proximity to rail stations in advertising.
"We have set a sales record every year since they put it in," said Speros, who owns Utah’s oldest continually operating restaurant. "TRAX has been great for Salt Lake."
Underneath the business community’s enthusiasm lies a paradox. Many downtown employees and merchants who embrace the line said they haven’t taken it even once. It doesn’t go where they live or to businesses they must visit for supplies.
Elizabeth Holloway supports TRAX, but she has never taken the train to the downtown restaurant she manages. She lives four blocks away and makes the trip by car.
Holloway is glad Salt Lake built the rail, but she said it will take years to live up to its potential.
"It hasn’t really helped traffic," Holloway said. "The people who take it are mostly the people who rode the bus anyway."
Authority numbers show TRAX took 13,000 former bus riders a day, bringing daily bus ridership down to 55,000.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Rail supporters rarely mention the cost of Salt Lake’s rail, one of the most expensive transportation modes available. Every boarding carries a cost to the transit authority of $8.31. The 19-mile line cost $520.4 million, about $27.4 million a mile.
The Valley’s planned light rail will cost more. Each boarding will cost the system $12.39, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments. The 20-mile system will cost $1.1 billion, or $60 million a mile.
By comparison, the proposed 21-mile South Mountain Freeway stretch of Loop 202 will cost about $1.3 billion.
While the freeway will carry 155,000 cars a day, the rail will carry 29,000 when it opens in 2006.
That vast difference in capacity despite a similar cost has drawn intense criticism.
"It’s a big chunk of money to move a very small number of people," said state Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa and chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "I’m trying to find the driving reason why we need light rail."
Utah’s transit authority general manager acknowledges the high cost, but said critics often fail to calculate the cost of building more roads, freeways and parking lots. John Inglish noted the University of Utah just eliminated plans for $20 million worth of parking garages because the line reduced the need for parking there.
"When people say public transportation costs a lot, they never mention the savings," Inglish said.