Two Salt Lakers have a next-generation plan for transit that, just maybe, could save downtown | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Two Salt Lakers have a next-generation plan for transit that, just maybe, could save downtown 

Grande Slam

Pin It
A rendering of the fully-built Rio Grande Plan shows a bustling, mixed-use neighborhood steps away from an attractive, modern train station. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • A rendering of the fully-built Rio Grande Plan shows a bustling, mixed-use neighborhood steps away from an attractive, modern train station.

When Christian Lenhart's family visited Salt Lake City from out of state last month, he planned an evening of riding Trax through downtown to see the Christmas lights and decorations.

But because of the limitations of Utah's transit services, Lenhart's family first drove to and parked at Salt Lake Central Station. When they arrived, they found a crowd of people who had missed their connection with Frontrunner.

"There was nothing for them—Frontrunner runs every hour," Lenhart said. "So there were a bunch of people standing out in the cold, in the snow, in the wind."

He said his mother was upset by the predicament of her fellow travelers, nearly offering to drive them to Provo herself. But arriving Trax trains just delivered more and more people to the spartan slab of exposed concrete in a derelict corner of town that serves as Salt Lake's primary train station.

"There is that sense of outrage that our city is really presenting itself very poorly if you come here by transit," Lenhart said. "It's just jarring that we have such high transit ridership but such a terrible Central Station that does not do our city any favors."

The experience was the latest in a long line of frustrations that in 2020 prompted Lenhart, an engineer, to dream up what a proper SLC train station could be. And after studying successful rail rehabilitation projects around the country, he prepared a 60-page draft proposal calling for a so-called "train box" along 500 West that would move freight and passenger lines underground and reactivate the historic Rio Grande Depot as a bonafide transportation hub.

"The more I thought about it and looked at the grades going into the structure and going out, and how much land would actually be opened up and the way you could reduce the freeway impacts downtown, it started to seem so obvious that yes, this is the right thing to do," he said.

Lenhart posted his idea to a message board for urban planning enthusiasts, where it caught the eye Cameron Blakely, a designer. They teamed up—with Lenhart providing the engineering technicality and Blakely the visual renderings—resulting in a slick, thorough concept known as the Rio Grande Plan that is increasingly gaining steam among local residents, advocates and even city officials.

  • Courtesy Photo

"It was fun taking his initial idea and the engineering side of it, and then laying on additional layers and how it starts to look in real life," Blakely said.

Under the Rio Grande Plan, much of the hostile infrastructure dividing the east and west sides of the city could be eliminated between North Temple and 900 South. That land could then be redeveloped, creating new opportunities for affordable housing and greenspace, adding to the growth of the Granary District, rejuvenating the area around The Gateway and Pioneer Park and likely recouping the cost of the project within a few years through taxes, development fees and economic impact.

Then there's the effect on transit itself, which could be rendered leagues more welcoming to riders by placing an attractive urban train station within comfortable walking distance of destinations like Vivint Arena and the Downtown Farmers Market, and allowing for better TRAX connections into the city (ironically, the currently-closed Rio Grande is an impediment to efficient transit, requiring trains to take a meandering 180-degree curve out and around the historic station).

If it all sounds too good to be true—it really isn't. Train boxes in Reno, Nevada, and Alameda, California, are larger than what the Rio Grande Plan calls for. Denver, Colorado, completed a similar project restoring its Union Station, which has reshaped the downtown experience of that city.

"$500 million in public investment at Union Station has transformed what was once a decommissioned rail yard into a vibrant, mixed-use area, with more than $3.5 billion in private development projects in the surrounding area as well as more than $2 billion in economic impact annually," Denver's Regional Transportation District (RTD) states on its website.

Lenhart said the Rio Grande Plan involves more complexity than Denver's Union Station project, meaning its cost and construction timeline can offer only a rough approximation of what Utah would be facing. But he added that Salt Lake City has advantages that Denver, Reno and others did not, namely an ultra-wide street grid and the fact that 500 West functioned for decades as a rail corridor. And because the Rio Grande Plan bypasses the existing lines, the bulk of construction could be achieved without disruption to rail services.

"We're not squeezing something in like a foot that's too big for the shoe," Lenhart said. "The infrastructure was built around the tracks, and it still fits, there's been little modification to it."

None of the above is to suggest the Rio Grande Plan would be easy. Rail projects are a jurisdictional quagmire, requiring the coordination of the city, state and potentially federal governments, as well as private freight operators like Union Pacific. There's also the political reality that Utah does not value transit, with current facilities reflective of the state's bare-minimum approach and with transportation officials overtly prioritizing highways—even at the expense of existing neighborhoods—with only incremental improvements to the passenger rail network since it was first built in the lead-up to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is in the early stages of an Interstate 15 expansion through Salt Lake and Davis Counties, estimated at $1.6 billion. In December, Gov. Spencer Cox said that while he hopes displacement can be minimized, some expansion is required. At a similar press conference in October, Cox said he was unfamiliar with the Rio Grande Plan.

"If we do have to move some of those families, they will be very well compensated for that," Cox said. "We try to avoid that at any cost."

In a statement, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said traffic planning is a key issue for Utah, one of the nation's fastest-growing states.

"Keeping Utah's high quality of life includes ensuring commute times are as short as possible for hard-working Utahns," he said.

Over the past year, Lenhart and Blakely have focused on meeting with local officials and stakeholder groups. And while the Salt Lake City Council hasn't formally supported the plan, the city has twice applied for grant funding to study the proposal, most recently in a "Reconnecting Communities" application that would explore various ways to mitigate the division between the city's east and west sides. Without buy-in at the local level, Lenhart said, there would be little point pushing the issue up to the state.

A spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority said he was familiar with the proposal but not authorized to comment on it. UDOT representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Salt Lake City Transportation director Jon Larsen said there are serious technical challenges that would need to be worked out with Union Pacific. But, he added, the Rio Grande Plan is among the proposals being "thoroughly" explored by planners.

"If we could pull it off, it would be an amazing benefit for the city in terms of healing the east/west divide and unlocking the potential of that area," Larsen said.

But as lawmakers convene this month, the idea may have gained enough momentum to jump the tracks, so to speak. And rather than being mutually exclusive, both Lenhart and Blakely said the Rio Grande Plan could work hand-in-glove with UDOT's I-15 project to achieve a more holistic solution that positions Utah for the future, improving mobility without the need for bulldozing homes.

"I really thought we were done with this in Salt Lake, as far as taking neighborhoods and paving them over. People are rightly outraged about that," Lenhart said. "The best way you can build back some public rapport is to spend some money on planning for transit—at least planning."

Lenhart and Blakely said they've sent informational materials to members of the state's committees over infrastructure and economic development. And the duo are hosting a public open house at the Main Library on Jan. 26, where they hope to connect both residents and decision makers with transit and urban planning experts.

"One thing the Rio Grande Plan does offer is a high-capacity central station that could accommodate not only the existing transit lines but also future expansions and future lines," Blakely said. "If UDOT were to ever consider—as an alternative to expanding I-15—maybe a light rail line up into Davis County, or expanded service on Frontrunner, the Rio Grande would be in a position to handle those new transit lines."

In the meantime, the word-of-mouth campaign continues, gaining allies and advocates with each new introduction.

"The plan is extremely grounded in what it's trying to do. It doesn't involve anything new, everything is based on what other cities have done," Lenhart said. "It's got legs because people who hear it, they understand how real it could be, and it goes from one person to the next person."

Pin It


About The Author

Benjamin Wood

Benjamin Wood

Lifelong Utahn Benjamin Wood has worn the mantle of City Weekly's news editor since 2021. He studied journalism at Utah State University and previously wrote for The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News and Entertainment Weekly

More by Benjamin Wood

Latest in News

Readers also liked…

© 2023 Salt Lake City Weekly

Website powered by Foundation