‘Long overdue’: New $6.6M bridge may finally solve a decades-old hurdle in Salt Lake City
The new bridge crosses five busy railroad lines by 500 West and 300 North in the city’s Guadalupe neighborhood, about a block from West High School
When Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton first started knocking on doors within the western border of his council district in 2017, he was stunned by the comments parents made about the route their children had to take to school.
Many said 300 North was the easiest path for their kids to get to class and it was frequently blocked by stopped freight trains, forcing them to dodge between railcars or crawl underneath them.
This wasn't a new issue by any means either.
West High Principal Jared Wright said he remembers parents bringing up safety concerns over 300 North when he was a student in the 1990s. And Carlton Christensen, chairman of the Utah Transit Authority Board of Trustees, also recalls fellow classmates having to figure out ways to meander around trains when he attended the school in the ’80s — before the rails were consolidated down to about half of what exists today.
"The problem has really been here since the railroad came through here," he said, standing a few yards from the railway.
However, after years of thought, planning and construction, federal, state and local leaders came together Wednesday morning to celebrate the opening of a new $6.6 million pedestrian bridge that may finally solve the long-standing problem.
The new bridge crosses five busy railroad lines — three owned by Union Pacific and a pair owned by UTA — by 500 West and 300 North in the city's Guadalupe neighborhood, about a block from West High School. It's tucked in between a pair of bridges at North Temple and 600 North, detours that aren't as practical for pedestrians in between.
Those associated with the project add that it can also serve students east of the rails heading to schools located on the other side of the tracks, and the many residents who now live in the fast-growing part of the city, as well.
"There's some connectivity on both sides of things that's long overdue," Wright said. "This beautiful facility is going to create better connectivity and, of course, increased safety."
The railway problem
About 60% of West High's student population lives on the city's west side, which means most have to cross the railroad tracks one way or another. While many knew about the issue at 300 North, the story of how this bridge came together started about a decade ago.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Robin Hutcheson explained earlier this year that her team collected video of students crawling underneath stopped freight trains to get to and from school during her tenure as a former Salt Lake City transportation official from 2012 to 2016. Transportation officials were concerned because a train could move at any moment and people ducking under trains may enter another line where a train is moving unbeknownst to them.
Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, remembers the video fondly.
"When we saw that, it made us sad, but, more importantly, it made us angry," he said, recalling it on Wednesday. "It made us committed to doing something to fix this problem."
UTA and the Utah Department of Transportation officials agreed that 300 North was a “top safety concern.” The need for a bridge has only grown with time, especially as the neighborhood exploded with new development. Several new apartments and townhomes opened over the past decade, and there are a handful more either under construction or in planning within a block of the bridge.
Issues associated with stopped freight trains haven’t changed much either. Salt Lake City launched a website last month collecting stories about the problem, which can lead to blockages that range from a few minutes to a few hours at 300 North.
Finding a solution
UTA eventually took the lead on the project, especially as it received Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Program funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation — a major turning point in the project coming together. Building a bridge over the railroad was easier said than done, however.
Christensen explained that it required help from several different agencies and companies to design and construct a bridge that could cross the rails without support in the center. It also required unique work hours because crews had to step aside at times as commuter and freight trains moved by.
The various entities agreed that it should include an elevator to assist people of all abilities. This elevator, Christensen adds, was also designed to be large enough to carry bicycles for those who bike through the area.
The Wasatch Front Regional Council, Salt Lake City, UDOT and Union Pacific also helped to foot the bill for the project.
Construction eventually began in 2021, which is when other challenges came into play. Officials said there were delays as a part of lingering supply chain shortages. Construction even closed 300 North for a long period of time, but it reopened a few months ago while crews worked to complete the final touches on the bridge.
Now that it’s open, those behind it hope that it finally solves a decades-old problem.
“The result today is a beautiful new facility not only for the students, but the city as a whole,” Christensen said. “Having safe access across this main track is an important piece in keeping individuals safe.”