How Utah Turned Its Unpopular Public Transit System Into a Hit
The Atlantic, October 2013
It wasn't always the case that Utah was in a hurry to build public transit. In 1992, voters rejected a tax measure that would have funded a light rail line in Salt Lake Valley. In 1997, at the groundbreaking for what would become the successful TRAX system, protestors held up signs that read: "Light Rail Kills Children." Not exactly a warm welcome.
Today, however, TRAX and transit are such integral parts of the Salt Lake metro that it's hard to imagine life without them. In 2006, voters easily approved a quarter-cent sales tax hike (64-36) so that the expansion (dubbed FrontLines 2015) could finish up by 2015 instead of 2030. And that $2.5 billion, five track project was completed this August — a full two years early.
That's 70 miles in 7 years, more than doubling the length of the Utah Transit Authority system, at $340 million under budget. How does a region once opposed to light rail perform a feat that would be impressive any day, but especially in times of transit cutbacks? The key, says Steve Meyer, chief capital development officer of UTA, is gathering broad support among stakeholders.
"We had a strong spirit of cooperation," says Meyer. "We tried to get … everybody on the 'us' side."
Oddly enough, one of UTA's most effective strategies for uniting people was targeting those who don't use public transit. The agency and its advocates pointed out that TRAX ridership saves 29,000 trips — or two full freeway lanes — in the Interstate-15 corridor every day. Road-reliant businesses like UPS ran ads explaining that FrontLines would help residents get their packages quicker by reducing traffic.
UTA also worked hard to create what Meyer calls an "inter-local agreement" among cities up and down the Salt Lake Valley corridor. Transit officials explained the basic infrastructure that would be put in place in every city and told local officials that they would have to pay for any extra amenities themselves. That early clarity prevented cities from withholding support unless they got a better deal than others.
"This eliminated some of that one-upsmanship you see," he says.
UTA helped itself in those discussions by securing 175 miles of right-of-way from the Union Pacific Railroad in 2002. That foresight meant UTA could build in the corridor with or without the permission of individual cities. And the unique nature of the area also limited dissent: today nearly four out of five Utah residents live in what's called the Wasatch Front, a 120-mile region that encompasses the state's major metros, including Salt Lake City.
"We have a backbone that serves a majority of the state's population," says Meyer.
Utah's transit unity has been aided by Envision Utah, a government-affiliated planning coalition that emerged in the late 1990s to champion sustainable long-term growth in the region. Today the group continues to champion transit-oriented development along the light rail corridor. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has called "broad buy-in and significant public engagement" a key pillar of Envision Utah's success.
Even so, FrontLines 2015 might not have been possible without outside help. Federal transit funding accounted for 20 percent of the total cost, according to Meyer. With Washington less and less inclined to pay for transportation projects, rallying local support will be even more important than it's been in the past.
"I think those days where a majority of that cost is covered by the federal government, for the initial capital, those days probably are gone," says Meyer. "We need to look for creative ways."