Salt lake city

Rio Grande plan, updated: underground trains in depot and granary districts catch Salt Lake City’s attention


500 W in Salt Lake City would be converted back into a transit corridor if the Rio Grande plan is successful. Looking south, a new canopy, with the Rio Grande depot to the left and the depot district redevelopment area to the right. Image courtesy of Cameron Blakely.

A plan designed by citizen-professionals that would revitalize rail transport, remove barriers between downtown and the city’s west side, and free up hundreds of acres for redevelopment has made its way to some “important players” since. our last report.

Designed in 2020, the Rio Grande Plan has raised eyebrows ever since. Its new iteration, which has just been released, is an impressive blend of graphic and urban design, transportation engineering and rail knowledge.

The plan sponsors tell us that their presentations were well received – representatives from most, if not all, of the organizations agreed that they would benefit from the plan. But none thinks they can do the lift on their own, and none so far has given any indication of a willingness to lead.

Salt Lake City City Hall officials, for their part, call the plan “forward-thinking,” “bold” and “transformative,” while making it clear that they would need partners. keys to intensify.

The current challenge, the plan’s authors tell us, is to find “champions” within key agencies to move the idea forward in its early stages.

Building Salt Lake has contacted some of these potential leaders about the plan. Some had seen the new version of the plan, others had not. We will take a look.

Map the actors

The plan’s writers, landscape architect and designer Cameron Blakely and transportation engineer Christian Lenhart – whose expertise includes the design of freeway ramps and level crossing safety – don’t hesitate to thank the others. people who helped the plan along the way.

Lenhart is “amazed and grateful for all the support, advice and help Cameron and I have received over the past year.”

He summed up their vision: “All the best cities in the world have, at their center, the beating heart of a large train station that connects the city to the surrounding communities, making the city center a real gathering place for all.

Blakely notes a “process of making”, consisting of “feedback from peers, colleagues and friends,” which made the last version a much more comprehensive document.

Current conditions on 500 W and 300 S, west side of Depot. This is the area where the new angular canopy would be located, above the train box. Notice the city’s particularly hostile approach to public space on 500 W. Photos by Luke Garrott.

They presented to the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) Board of Directors and the City.

Other parties involved, and likely key partners, are Union Pacific, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), the Utah Legislature, and UT’s Department of Culture and Community Engagement, current users of the repository.

Union Pacific, of course, also holds key cards. Although no contact has been made with them, Lenhart is confident that they will welcome the closure of so many crossings with open arms. The Rio Grande plan also argues that UP’s Salt Lake City train stations are completely obsolete for their current operations.

The updated plan

The main components of the project are as follows (cited and edited from the Plan).

• Moves all north-south rail tracks between 900 S and 100 S in an underground structure called a “train box”.

• Moves all transit services from the current Salt Lake Central Station at 600W and 300S to the historic Rio Grande depot at 450W and 300S.

• Permanent disappearance of level crossings that block the west-east flow in and near the city center: 200 S and 650 W, 800 S and 650 W, and 900 S and 650 W.

• Demolishes the 400 S viaduct, freeing nearly 2000 linear feet of street frontage – 2 1/2 blocks on either side of the redesigned street.

• Opens 52 acres of land from the former use of the railroad.

• Opens over 150 additional acres of private land for redevelopment.

New renderings of the Rio Grande depot, enlarged to the west. Images courtesy of Cameron Blakely.

The authors noted two key changes between the first and second iteration. First, Blakely reconfigured 500W into an entire street, “to activate the Station Center project ground levels rather than facing them at a bus stop.” he noted.

Regional buses are moved north and south from the depot, while local UTA buses share the front of the terminal on Rio Grande St with TRAX trains.

Second, Lenhart’s expertise in designing freeway ramps led him to artfully design a way to realign the UDOT’s 900 S ramp to go down to 500 W instead of West Temple, which would be a huge win for the Central 9th ​​and Ballpark wards.

According to him, “express buses from all over the valley could take the highway, then get off on the 500 west and 900 south and up the street to the Rio Grande Depot transit center.”

“But we’ve been told a number of times that it’s more embarrassing to have it in there than not, so we deleted it.”

Reactions from municipal authorities

Salt Lake City officials were first on Lenhart and Blakely’s list for early contact, for understandable reasons. The City Redevelopment Agency (RDA) has been active in the northern part of the region for decades and has aggressively supported TRAX’s rail extensions and development around stations. The city council acts as the board of directors of the GDR and the mayor appoints its leaders.

The prospect of a new TIF zone, perhaps a Transit Redevelopment Zone (TRZ), must be appealing to city leaders with an area so well connected to the city center.

The likelihood of a political setback in the area’s development appears to be nil, given that its neighbors are the Transition Light Industrial Areas of Granary to the east and the Interstate to the west.

This “Future Land Use Master Plan” flown over shows how removing lanes and shortening freeway ramps can transform the area. Image courtesy of Cameron Blakely.

The city’s master plans also mention future extensions of the tramway or the TRAX railway line to the south through the Grenier.

Councilor Dan Dugan (District 6) was an early and energetic supporter of the plan, its authors tell us. The first-term city councilor, a retired US Navy pilot who currently works in local manufacturing, said the plan turned him on for reasons of town planning, air quality and fairness .

Dugan is starting a series of meetings in the coming days with potential partners – with the aim of securing support for a funding feasibility study.

“I’m impressed. It’s bold, transformative, where we can have great growth for Salt Lake City that doesn’t increase the number of cars or necessitate the expansion of I-15.

“What are the big barriers between east and west in the city? It’s I-15 and the railroad tracks. They block the flow of commerce, people and ideas. We have big equity issues in the city which are partially resolved by the removal of the rail lines. “

Dugan describes a commuter coming from the airport or from Ogden to downtown: “You take a train from the airport, enter a beautiful station, you walk to your meeting, walk to dinner, come back to the station. and return to your hotel or take a train home.

This new graphic shows the rail extensions and minor realignments needed around the depot – as well as how moving Central Station a block and a half east, to the existing historic Rio Grande depot, makes the key downtown destinations within walking distance. Image courtesy of Cameron Blakely.

In small group conversations, each member of city council discussed the idea, he told us. There are concerns about the high price tag, $ 300-500 million, worried Dugan says he understands. But he argues that if you add up all the transportation investments that city and state will make in and around downtown, they will cost as much and fall short of what the Rio Grande plan can.

“We have to go in with our eyes wide open. But if we don’t and do a bunch of projects separately – like adding or changing TRAX lines, expanding FrontRunner, tracks and crossings for Inner Harbor rail traffic – if you do those expensive projects. separately, we will not have the impact that the Rio Grande project will have, ”said Dugan.

Reno and Denver both made big investments by recreating their rail network around a downtown central station. Images courtesy of Plan Rio Grande.

We also asked the mayor and the director of the GDR for comments.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall told us that “I look forward to the opportunity to review this plan, but please be aware that if UTA and Union Pacific are interested in further exploring the concept of the project, our RDA is ready to work with the rest. of the city to coordinate on the feasibility of this avant-garde effort ”

For his part, RDA Director Danny Walz said: “Yes, we are aware of the Rio Grande plan and are excited about the concept. It is the role of the RDA to implement the policies and master plans of the City as well as the priorities of partners such as UTA ​​and Union Pacific… Ultimately, the implementation of this project would require that the plans and City policies be updated and a new tax increase zone established. These efforts would be coordinated by the city administration and approved by the city council and would involve engagement with the public and other stakeholders.

Next steps

The plan’s authors told us that while enthusiasm was widespread among important local players, a refrain of “moving up the food chain” was also repeated. “A state-level champion could do that,” Lenhart and Blakely said, “not any of us.”

It is unlikely that one of the many improvements that the Plan seeks to bring about, in terms of air quality, equity, transport efficiency and quality, RR level crossing safety, urban planning, pedestrian accessibility, real estate development … behind the Rio Grande Plan so that it is adopted as a policy, financed and implemented.

But what if this last interest – real estate development – and the city’s willingness to put pressure on many others – were to win out? The other key players – the state and UP – could simply get on this train.


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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion