SALT LAKE CITY — Close your eyes and imagine your daily commute zipping along at 90 mph up — or down — the Wasatch Front.
It’s a vision Gov. Gary Herbert is hoping to bring to fruition starting with $34 million in annual funding to begin the work of double-tracking the FrontRunner commuter rail line. The proposal is among the notable items in the governor’s just-released $20 billion state budget for the coming fiscal year.
The decade-old FrontRunner has been running on a largely single-track system since inception, with some sporadic twin-track sections on the Provo-to-Ogden line that allow for one train to park temporarily to allow another train to pass in the opposite direction. A 2018 report from FrontRunner operator Utah Transit Authority noted the single-track configuration “limits the frequency of train service and forces the system to operate at lower than optimum speeds” and that “reliability is reduced when trains are delayed due to large passenger loads, equipment malfunctions or other incidents.”
Running two tracks along the entirety of the system would amplify performance in numerous ways, including increasing passenger capacity, cutting the times between trains in half and allowing the diesel-powered locomotives to up their top speed from the current 79 mph to 90 mph. Doubling the tracks also lays the groundwork for converting the combustion-engine locomotives to electric power, a changeover that would increase efficiency and drastically reduce environmental impacts of the commuter line’s vehicles.
Herbert spokeswoman Anna Lenhardt said the governor believes the double-track upgrade is one of the best moves the state could make among ongoing efforts to address the state’s air quality issues.
“Adding a double-track to certain sections of FrontRunner would allow trains to run every 15 minutes, instead of every 30 minutes,” Lenhardt said. “This not only makes it possible for the trains to carry more people, it will also make it easier for people to get where they need to go on time while using public transit.
“Improving mass transit options is one of the best things we can do to help decrease emissions and improve our air quality.”
While $34 million would help expedite the first steps in upgrading the 89-mile line that includes 16 stations, the overall price tag for the project is significantly larger. UTA’s current cost estimates for double-tracking the full system, electrifying the vehicles and adding additional stations would be north of $3 billion.
However, UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said that goal could be achieved in increments and even partial double-tracking in key areas could allow for significant service upgrades.
“We have been identifying key sections for double-tracking that could alleviate some of the current problems,” Gonot said. “By adding 12 to 14 miles of additional double-track we could move to more frequent service from the south and more express trains from the north. We could probably get to 15 minutes (between trains) during peak and some express service in the north.”
While UTA completed an expansive study focused on the future of FrontRunner in 2018, Gonot said the agency is ready to begin some additional analysis that would help zero-in on the best plan to move forward with improvements to the commuter rail line that could be funded and built in phases.
A fully built out double-track system could lead to significant increases in passenger volumes on the heavy-rail line, particularly if combined with a free fare system — an idea that’s been raised recently as a strategy to drive more commuters toward transit solutions. Statistical modeling done for the Point of the Mountain Development Commission showed that if FrontRunner upgrades were accomplished, along with appropriate land use strategies and instituting systemwide free fares, future ridership could be boosted from the expected 28,000 daily in 2050 without any changes, to 107,000 daily riders.
Gonot is just four months into the leadership position at UTA, taking over the helm of Utah’s statewide transit agency after 22 years with Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, where she led the funding and planning for the 16-mile, six-station extension of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system into San Jose. She noted how appreciative she was of the FrontRunner funding getting prioritized by Herbert and said Utah’s collaborative atmosphere was a refreshing change from the Bay Area, where over 20 different transit agencies created a much more chaotic planning and funding environment.
Herbert’s $34 million ask to finance FrontRunner improvements now heads for the Legislature where lawmakers will consider the proposal as part of their work in the 2020 session that convenes later this month. But the idea is already getting positive reviews from some legislators, including Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who said he was solidly behind the plan to upgrade FrontRunner and called the effort “long overdue.”
“I am a strong proponent of doubling the FrontRunner track lines,” Adams said in a statement. “It is a necessity that is overdue. Additional track lines will hopefully enable an increase in speed, making public transportation more efficient. The recent tax reform efforts provide a more stable revenue source for transportation infrastructure that will help us plan for the future as our state continues to grow.
“I appreciate the governor including it as a funding request in his budget recommendation.”
UTA celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Salt Lake City-to-Ogden FrontRunner North in 2018. Even as that first line, which cost $613 million, began service, construction of the $870 million southbound line got underway and opened in 2013. In the first decade of service, UTA reported more than 31 million riders took more than 180,000 trips on red, white and blue FrontRunner trains that operate six days a week, for a total of more than 10 million miles.