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Like Santa Ana, Salt Lake City looks to bring streetcars to Downtown

December 9, 2009

From the Salt Lake Tribune –  Salt Lake City wants to make the dusty black-and-white picture books of downtown bound to life.

Mayor Ralph Becker imagines a 21st-century version of the city’s old streetcars snaking through the capital’s urban catacomb.

And, now, consultants hired by the city have four potential routes that — depending on federal funding — one day may make it possible to traverse the business district on wheels without a car.

“The administration sees it as a key element in catalyzing development in downtown,” says Becker spokeswoman Lisa Harrison Smith. “It’s definitely a high-level priority.”

Subject to tweaks, the proposed alignments would zip streetcars from the Salt Lake Central transit station south to 900 South, east to 500 East and right through downtown’s heart — passing by the Salt Palace Convention Center and planned City Creek Center. The lines would be designed to swell ridership on the Utah Transit Authority bus and rail network and serve as a “circulator,” ferrying people between downtown TRAX stations and the FrontRunner hub.

An open house to let residents weigh in on the streetcar paths is scheduled Monday from 4 to 6 p.m. at City Hall.

“I’m thrilled that the city is taking the time to look at a variety of different routes,” says Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, “and asking for input from residents, commuters, business owners and property owners.”

Mathis notes the streetcar system in Portland, Ore., has “demonstrably” boosted business growth, night life and living spaces — and should provide the same vibrancy here.

“Our goal is for people to drive downtown, park once, then be able to access every part of the city without driving,” Mathis says. “A streetcar system seems like a very elegant solution.”

The city also is plotting a Sugar House route near 2200 South along an existing railroad corridor from roughly 1050 East to the Central Pointe TRAX station at 200 West. Officials will find out in January or February whether they have landed some $30 million in federal funds for that streetcar.

Of course, the biggest blockade to all the lines is manufacturing the millions for construction. But Len Simon, the city’s Washington lobbyist, says the climate in Congress under the Obama administration seems advantageous for the city to snag some streetcar funding.

“The best that I’ve seen since really the [2002] Olympic days,” he told the City Council this week.

Simon predicts the city will have “three or four ongoing windows” — from annual appropriations to stimulus cash to increased transportation budgets — to secure federal dollars.

The total price tag is unclear and depends on whether routes would be built simultaneously. According to redevelopment documents, city officials also hope to “leverage” new development alongside streetcars to pay for them.

Earlier this year, executives from City Hall toured Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, to examine those cities’ streetcar systems. On a subsequent Northwest trip, Utah business owners raved about the stimulus achieved through streetcars.

Scott Beck, president of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a “huge proponent” of the plan. But he is pushing the city to consider a streetcar corridor extending along West Temple from 600 South to South Temple.

“West Temple is just a real main artery for us,” he says. “We suggest they look at the density of where the visitors are.”

Beck argues that street serves as the gateway to hotels, the convention center, Temple Square and the planned $1.5 billion City Creek Center.

The second biggest corridor for visitors, Beck says, is 200 South, which is slotted for a streetcar — if planners find the dollars.

By Derek P. Jensen
The Salt Lake Tribune

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