Earlier this month, during the Utah school system's fall break, Salt Lake City International Airport staff ran into an issue it hadn't dealt with since the opening of the new airport terminal last year.
Every single parking stall at the airport was taken. Its parking lot was completely full as a result of close to 30,000 travelers coming in to fly somewhere else.
"That's a little troubling because that means it's entirely likely that there were people driving to the airport, bags in the trunk, ticket in hand, who couldn't find a place to park," said Bill Wyatt, director of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
While he contends airport leaders such as himself will work to address parking in the future, he used that recent example to highlight the importance of another solution: mass transit. In particular, a new light-rail station.
On Monday, Wyatt, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Utah Transit Authority executives welcomed the opening of the new Salt Lake City Airport TRAX Station. They did so by arriving on a special Green Line light-rail car that arrived just outside the airport's main terminal. The train was supposed to break through a specially made banner to symbolize a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but strong winds tore the banner to shreds before the train arrived.
The weather couldn't stop the celebration. It marked the end of 20 months of construction that was delayed as a result of economic and pandemic-related issues. City, airport and UTA leaders say the station will serve as a convenient alternative to driving to the airport, much like the previous airport station did for the old Salt Lake City airport.
"This is an exciting day for us," Mendenhall said. "How we move people matters. How you move when you're going on a business trip, when you're taking your family on vacation, and how you see and experience that place has so much to do with the beginning and the end of your travels from your home. And the opening of this TRAX (station) today changes the fabric of the experience of Salt Lake City and all of Utah."
Kaitlin Eskelson, the president of Visit Salt Lake, said the station isn't just exciting for Utahns heading to the airport for travel. She said the station's "ease of access" is one of its premier selling points for people coming into Salt Lake City for travel. It takes just 20 minutes to travel from the airport station to the City Creek Center station in downtown Salt Lake City.
Visitation to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, driven heavily by people coming into the state from the airport, plays a key role in Utah's tourism economy. In 2019, before COVID-19, tourism brought in over $10 billion. Salt Lake County accounted for nearly half of that between business and leisure visitation.
With Salt Lake City's airport beginning to inch closer to pre-COVID-19 pandemic traveler numbers — levels that fill up its parking lot — and business conventions slowly returning to downtown Salt Lake City, Eskelson is optimistic that tourism spending will return to normal soon. That's aided by having a light-rail station right outside the airport that can take people right to the city. From there, those looking to get to Utah's ski resorts can use other UTA services or other forms of transportation.
"(Fewer minutes) that they can spend getting to the airport or getting from the airport, they can spend more time on the slopes and more time in our communities," she said.
Nancy Volmer, a spokeswoman for the airport, added that the station and normal Green Line service is also valuable for close to thousands of employees who travel to and from the airport for work.
The first airport station opened in April 2013 as a part of an extension of what was then the new TRAX Green Line running from the airport to West Valley City, through downtown Salt Lake City in between. Carlton Christensen, chairman of the UTA Board of Trustees, said there have been 2.7 million trips to the airport since the line opened.
The Green Line has connecting points to the Red Line, which goes to the University of Utah and out to the Daybreak neighborhood in South Jordan, and the Blue Line, which runs between downtown Salt Lake City and Draper. There is also a connecting point to UTA's FrontRunner, which is a commuter rail service that travels between Ogden and Provo. That's all on top of the several bus stations that connect with several other routes across Salt Lake County.
Construction of the new airport TRAX station began in March 2020. Christensen said the line was extended by 1,500 feet. The entire project cost $22 million, which was secured through local funding.
The new airport station itself may look familiar for those who used TRAX to get to the old airport. That's because the materials from the old station were brought over to the new location, according to UTA spokesman Carl Arky. He said recycling the items saved time and money. The project was originally expected to be completed in July, but COVID-19 issues and concrete supply shortages delayed the project a few months.
Up until Monday, riders could take TRAX's Green Line to get to the airport but needed to transfer onto a bus to get to the terminal. The bus also took riders from the terminal to the Green Line; however, the process resulted in delays ranging from a few minutes to up to an hour in some cases.
It's not clear if those delays resulted in drops in Green Line ridership. UTA has experienced a massive systemwide ridership drop since the beginning of the pandemic, which arrived in Utah in mid March 2020. While ridership is still significantly below pre-pandemic levels, the agency has reported a spike in ridership over the recent moments.
UTA reports it averaged 33,704 weekday boardings in September, up 54% from the previous September but still 45% below September 2019 averages. What's more, the agency continues to report new post-pandemic monthly records. September 2021 also marked the first time UTA returned to 30,000 or more weekday riders since April 2020.
"Hopefully we'll see an uptick now that people know it's going to be a little bit more convenient — or maybe a lot more convenient — just to hop on the Green Line and ride it all the way out here," Arky said. "It just takes time."
As ridership continues to increase, UTA is looking at ways to help it grow further. Christensen said UTA will extend Sunday service at the airport from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. beginning Dec. 12. That's a return to service times that existed before the pandemic.
He added that the agency is also preparing to launch an incentive that will allow travelers with "current day" boarding passes to ride TRAX for free in an effort to encourage people to use the service.
Meanwhile, Arky said he believes it's "critical" that the project was completed ahead of the upcoming holiday travel season and as airline travel increases.
"This airport is a draw already for more and more traffic. So, I think as more and more people go out and start travel again and we get closer to the holidays, and Salt Lake City and the metro area just organically continue growing as it is, I think every bit of transportation we can offer that offers a better solution ... wouldn't be fast enough," he said.
"It's great that we got it done now. We've seen nothing but continued growth and continued use of the airport."