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Point of the Mountain Commission wrangles transportation issues

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SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly two years of work exploring how to plan for and manage ongoing explosive growth, future transportation needs figured largely in conversations at Tuesday's Point of the Mountain Development Commission meeting.

Commission member and Draper Mayor Troy Walker, whose city is already discussing potential impacts from a planned wholesale redevelopment of the current, 700-acre state prison site within its boundaries, noted how quickly decision-making deadlines are approaching.

"I'm afraid we're a little behind the eight ball," Walker said. "The prison is moving in three or four years. It's crunching in on us right now, faster maybe than we're willing to realize."

Some initial answers to questions about "how much" and "how long" surfaced Tuesday as the commission focused on transit and transportation topics, with input from planning groups and agencies that will all play a role in moving the commission's "preferred scenarios" from concepts to reality.

Visioning plans, approved by the commission in January and backed by the Utah Legislature, lay out a path to a future that accommodates growth through new transportation and transit investment, incentivizes high-density housing solutions and catalyzes economic development.

Commission findings reflect that successful growth management could add tens of thousands of jobs, boost wage growth, address air quality issues and lead to a windfall in new tax revenues. But the optimum path forward comes with a premium price tag, including an estimated $11.4 billion in state and local transportation infrastructure costs.

Utah's nation-leading population influx is fueling a growth arc that could see Salt Lake and Utah counties each playing host to more than 1.6 million residents by 2065. Without active management and investment, commission findings indicate the growth will lead to an array of unfortunate outcomes, including higher housing costs, longer commutes, worsening air quality, fewer new jobs and lost wage growth.

Utah Transit Authority Director of Planning Laura Hanson said a two-year FrontRunner study is about to conclude and she expects findings will reflect how to best maximize efficiencies, moving forward, for the heavy rail system. The Provo-to-Ogden commuter line figures largely in the commission's formula for addressing the "people moving" challenges that are coming with growth.

Hanson noted a ballpark cost of $3 billion for double-tracking, electrifying and "in filling" the current FrontRunner line with additional stations to reach a goal of 15-minute headways. Statistical modeling done for the commission's work showed that if those upgrades were accomplished, along with appropriate land use strategies and instituting systemwide free fares, future FrontRunner ridership could be boosted from the expected 28,000 daily in 2050 without any changes, to 107,000 daily riders.

Expanding UTA's current TRAX light rail system, including getting a line to the revamped Draper prison site, is part of the commission's wish list as well. Hanson said the first step in assessing the best alignments for future TRAX expansions is to conduct an "alternatives analysis" that would capture the relative "pros and cons to the different alignment options," as well as look at related benefits like economic development impacts.

That work, Hanson said, will likely run in the $500,000 to $600,000 range and take a year to 18 months. Potential environmental impacts of expansion options will also need to be evaluated, adding an additional $2 million to $3 million to costs and another 1 1/2 years, though some of the work could overlap with the alternatives analysis, Hanson said. She also noted the work will include wide public involvement.

"The benefit of the alternatives analysis process is it gives us all the chance to sit down and talk about what our goals are," Hanson said.

Improving and expanding roadways is also a major component of the preferred Point of the Mountain scenarios. A new north-south "boulevard" west of I-15 is envisioned as a way to move some capacity off the freeway. It could include a "transit envelope" that would function as a physical placeholder for future transit options, like bus rapid transit or a light rail line. Existing east-west arterials are also expected to experience increased congestion as the population expands and a new roadway, running approximately along the Salt Lake County-Utah County border and connecting Mountain View Corridor with I-15 could provide some relief to the cross-traffic congestion that's expected to worsen.

Utah Department of Transportation Deputy Director Teri Newell said that project has topographic challenges, including the necessity to elevate sections of the roadway and could cost in the range of $500 million to $600 million.

Envision Utah President and Chief Operating Officer Ari Bruening told the commission that the Phase 3 work, focused on identifying and evaluating public and private funding options to achieve preferred scenario goals, is ongoing. Bruening's planning group is overseeing and coordinating work on behalf of the commission.

In the meantime, the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, created by Utah lawmakers via HB372 in the last session, has begun its work to oversee and manage how the 700-acre Draper prison property is transformed.

The Draper prison is expected to be vacated in spring 2021, when the new state prison facility on Salt Lake City's west side is scheduled to be completed.