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Opinion: Why the Rio Grande Plan could solve Salt Lake traffic

An empty rail yard wastes space in Salt Lake City — space we desperately need for housing, shops and transportation. This plan could solve two problems at once

SHARE Opinion: Why the Rio Grande Plan could solve Salt Lake traffic
A front view of a Utah FrontRunner train on the tracks.

A northbound FrontRunner train is pictured on Feb. 12, 2021 near Salt Lake City, Utah. Funding for public transportation will solve many of Utah’s traffic problems with the growing population. The Rio Grande plan suggests that the Rio Grande Depot be transformed into a central hub for public transportation.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Anyone driving into Salt Lake City has seen the huge, empty rail yards that cut through the center of the city and form a deep divide between the east and west sides.

Getting off of I-15 in your car, you may notice the sea of train tracks is typically sparsely populated by freight trains, which is partially because the railroad that owns most of it, Union Pacific, mostly uses other yards for its business in the valley these days.

As you drive over the massive concrete viaducts on 400 South, 500 South and 600 South, you may even catch a glimpse of a striking, historic, red-roofed train station in good condition, emblazoned on high with the words “Rio Grande” but seemingly sitting empty, deprived of its original connection to the tracks by more than a block of barren wasteland. The state of Utah owns the Rio Grande Depot, a fantastic grand station built in 1910, and it currently uses it to house the state archives. Soon, the archives will be relocated to a new building near the Capitol, leaving the old train station empty.

Enter the Rio Grande Plan, a visionary idea generated and promoted by a group of Salt Lake citizens.

This plan would reroute the rail lines starting from the North Temple FrontRunner station underground and along the existing, publicly owned right of way of 500 West. Passing directly behind the Rio Grande Depot, all FrontRunner, Amtrak and freight rail would move through Salt Lake City in a “train box” beneath a completely rebuilt surface street.

On top of reconnecting the long-separated east and west sides by removing multiple dangerous rail crossings and bridges, over 75 acres of prime, downtown-adjacent real estate where the rail yards are would be freed for the development of new walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Salt Lake Central Station, which today isn’t much more than a platform with some benches that is too far from anything to be useful, could be bulldozed and a new multimodal hub built around the Rio Grande Depot. Passengers would disembark from FrontRunner or Amtrak, ride an escalator up to ground level and be nearly two (massive) Salt Lake City blocks closer to downtown businesses and offices. Buses and TRAX would also be close by. The trains would then reemerge just south of 900 South to rejoin the existing tracks heading toward Murray and beyond.

What’s the catch?

Some would say the price tag.

A large public project like this would surely cost a lot of money. But the bang for the buck is there in spades, and there is precedent. Denver executed a similar project in the last decade, revitalizing its Union Station and building a huge underground transit hub with a price tag of approximately $625 million in 2022 dollars. The money that was borrowed for that massive project was paid back with interest 10 years early due to the resulting $3.5 billion in private investments in the immediate area around the station.

To further put this into perspective, the Utah Department of Transportation routinely spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on building a few freeway ramps and interchanges. Bangerter Highway’s most recent interchange projects have been allocated $600 million by Utah's Legislature.

What this implies is that the great state of Utah could have a world-class, multimodal transit hub downtown that would reuse a historic building, open up huge areas to redevelopment, and remove many deadly railway crossings for the price of a few freeway ramps. We wouldn’t even need to move a prison to do it.

It’s no secret, Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake Valley are growing fast. New buildings are everywhere, traffic is getting worse and gas prices are high. Instead of investing in widening freeways and building more parking garages, UDOT and the Utah Transit Authority, as well as state and local lawmakers, should invest in getting people around efficiently without cars.

The government of Salt Lake City has taken notice of the Rio Grande Plan and has applied for federal funding to study the idea, but we need public support and help from the state to get it done.

Check out the Rio Grande Plan for yourself at www.riograndeplansaltlakecity.org

Matthew Givens grew up in Ogden, Utah, and received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah. Not an urban planner by trade, he maintains a strong interest in new urbanism and the history and future of Salt Lake City.