Salt Lake City’s streetcar is driving development on a grand scale, but is it relieving traffic?

In the 10 years since its introduction, the Salt Lake City streetcar has fueled a development boom in parts of Sugar House and South Salt Lake, even as the trolley line remains well below its potential for passengers.

A new study by S-Line estimates that the two-mile stretch of rail service — which runs east-west at about 2200 South between Fairmont Station in the Sugar House CBD and Central Pointe Station at 200 West in South Salt Lake – apparently spurred up to $2 billion in economic growth.

These include increased property values ​​and the construction of up to 2,000 high-rise apartments and oodles of new retail and office space since 2011 on lots within the 800-meter-wide transit corridor, say University of Utah experts who evaluated the S-Line’s performance in a study for the State Department of Transportation.

They found that at least 1,000 more homes and more commercial developments are in the pipeline, and their personal interviews with developers confirm the financial allure of building next to Utah’s first modern streetcar.

“Almost certainly everyone who’s building down there is looking at the S-Line as a major amenity,” Dan Lofgren, whose company Cowboy Properties built the 171-unit Liberty Village Apartments at 2150 S. McClelland St., told researchers . “Everyone realizes that it’s a meaningful thing.”

Encouraged by the pro-development zoning of land surrounding the route, the resulting growth is changing the heart of Sugar House with an influx of new residents and businesses, and has prompted South Salt Lake to develop an entire future downtown district around the western terminus of the S-Line to stake out .

But the slow-moving tram remains relatively light for passengers, even as usage recedes from a broader COVID-19 pandemic hit to public transit.

The S line also doesn’t appear to significantly reduce traffic on nearby roads like 2100 South, especially when compared to busier commuter corridors and bus lines elsewhere on the Wasatch front.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The S-Line streetcar from Sugar House on December 23, 2022.

“It’s met its goals — almost,” said Reid Ewing, an U. professor of urban and metropolitan planning, of the S-Line. “It’s a work in progress.

“One thousand to 2,000 drivers a day is still a very small number when you look at it as a mode of transportation,” Ewing said. “The point is, it’s more of an engine for economic development than a means of transportation.”

However, there is evidence that the S-Line’s ridership will increase significantly as the proposed expansions add more destinations and the route includes pedestrian-friendly improvements on adjacent streets and better connection with other TRAX lines at Central Pointe Station.

The single-lane trolley saw some of its highest monthly ridership ever during the summer. “There’s a significant increase,” said study co-author Justyna Kaniewska, “even when we factor in the pandemic.”

Image making vs. people moving

Jointly built by Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and the Utah Transit Authority, the S-Line opened in 2013 and operates along a portion of an old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad freight and passenger line that once connected rail yards in South Salt Lake Commerce through Sugar House and up Emigration Canyon to Park City.

It cost $55 million, almost half of which was covered by federal transportation grants.

Ewing, Kaniewska, Dong-ah Choi, Wookjae Yang, and Hannah Kalantari of The U. note in their article that streetcars are often seen as a means of image building and promoting economic growth and tourism, rather than as investments in transportation.

The main goal in places like Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati; New Orleans and elsewhere across the country, the U. scholars wrote, were developing and revitalizing underutilized or devastated urban areas. Research also suggests that maximizing benefits requires a mix of supportive city policies, available land and the right conditions in real estate markets.

All of these factors have worked to some extent for the S-Line.

Utah’s growing economy, nation-leading population increases, and high demand for housing since 2013 have spurred urban and rural development, and Sugar House has grown particularly rapidly since the pandemic.

Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake enacted what is known as shape-based zoning on land around the S-Line, allowing for higher density and mixed-use in neighborhoods that already had sizeable swathes of industrial and warehouse real estate and surface parking lots that were more appropriate sanitized.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The S-Line streetcar from Sugar House on December 23, 2022.

The U. study documented 17 sizable residential projects in Salt Lake City’s east neck corridor — including The Vue at Sugar House, Sugarmont Apartments, Dixon Place and the recently burned Sugar Alley project — along with more than a dozen new business developments.

Zoning for a Sugar House business district was first approved in 1995, but major investment only began to flow when the S-Line opened and the city pushed for a more forms-based approach, according to Nick Norris, director of city planning.

“That,” he told U. scholars, “was the turning point.”

Driving force in South Salt Lake’s “new downtown”.

In the case of South Salt Lake, a new zoning followed the S-Line in 2016. “We wanted to take a completely different approach and actually create a downtown area,” said Alexandra White, the community development director.

The new district — between State Street and Interstate 15 from Interstate 80 to 2100 South — “has unlimited density,” White told researchers. “There is no upper density limit. There is also no height limit.”

New offices, a handful of retailers and a leisure facility have all come online, along with several multi-story residential buildings, many of which are symbolic of how the surrounding neighborhoods are changing. There is one in the former Zellerbach paper warehouse at 2255 S. 300 East; another where the old Ritz Classic bowling alley stood at 2265 S. State; as well as the townhouses of Moda at 2250 S. 400 East.

But most of the new apartments and townhouses in both cities are unaffordable for those earning an average Utah income without being narrowed down to other necessities. Only one complex near the S-Line — Liberty Village — offers subsidized rents for 20% of its apartments for low-income families.

Minor impact on 2100 South

Research on the 400 South and its TRAX Red Line extension from downtown Salt Lake City into the United States, as well as rapid transit routes in the Provo-Orem area, provides strong evidence that Utah’s mass transit routes divert a significant number of car trips away from busy roads at times.

So far, however, the S-Line hasn’t had a similar impact on Sugar House’s increasingly congested 2100 South, which is now undergoing a major overhaul.

Analysis of UDOT’s traffic data, coupled with carefully weighted comparisons to similar segments along 1300 South, 1700 South, 2700 South, and 3300 South, shows that average daily traffic counts on 2100 South have increased alongside streetcar ridership since the S-Line opened are.

Researchers say that, in turn, this is likely due to the area’s increasing attractiveness for development. It’s also due to the nature of a streetcar, which usually means it’s moving at 15 to 25 miles per hour, or roughly bicycle speed.

“Trams are slow, and that’s exactly what you don’t want when your goal is passengers,” Ewing said. “Stops are frequent. The stations are close together. Usually it’s a car. So it really doesn’t compete with the car.”

Housing is also a factor, possibly a big one. Kaniewska, co-author of the study, said a lack of affordable rental housing near the S line likely meant many new residents in the area were more affluent and less likely to rely on public transit.

“It’s a hypothesis,” she said, “but typically people who use public transit more often are people who actually need it.”

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Salt Lake City’s streetcar is driving development on a grand scale, but is it relieving traffic?

Justin Scacco

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