Will Salt Lake trolley line lead to economic development?

Would you ride a slow-moving trolley car on a shopping trip?

Perhaps more importantly, do you believe such a car, coming by on a regular basis, could be a catalyst to economic development?

I’ll admit to being a romantic when it comes to trains. When Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker came to the Deseret News editorial board the other day to talk about the new trolley line under construction into the Sugar House district, my mind wandered to visions of the early 20th century, with guys in stiff collars and bowler hats running gingerly to hop onto a passing car.

I ride the light rail to work and home again every day, even though I have to change trains in the process and the whole trip takes longer than it would in a car (provided the freeways are clear). I enjoy the time to relax, read or answer emails.

I probably will ride the trolley to Sugar House occasionally, to go to lunch or do some shopping.

But I’m a skeptic when it comes to the claims that rail leads to economic development.

I haven’t seen it with light rail, despite hearing lots of bureaucrats predict it for 13 years now. And as for the trolley line — Sugar House already is a vibrant shopping area, but there are lots of spaces between there and where the line will begin, at the TRAX station on 2100 South, that aren’t so pedestrian friendly.

Becker and his staff say I’ll need to be patient, but that economic development will come to those areas, too, with walkable shops, restaurants and homes. I’ll remain a skeptic until I see it, albeit a hopeful one.

The first phase of the new trolley line will cost $55 million. Only $11 million will come from Salt Lake City, with the same coming from South Salt Lake, through which the line will go. The rest comes from the feds. Becker said nine private-sector projects already are underway in Sugar House worth about a combined $400 million, and that South Salt Lake has some of its own.

Meanwhile, look at this old map of Salt Lake City trolley lines during their heyday, probably about 100 years ago. Virtually every home in the city was no more than a block or two from a line.

Then look at this report I found from 1977, by the Utah Economic and Business Review, about why that heyday disappeared. Simply put, the automobile came along and got popular. The report concludes that transit programs in the future should avoid “Fixed operating systems which do not provide operating flexibility.” These, it said, would cost a lot of money “without meeting the service needs of the public.”

Times change, and 35-year-old conclusions can look wrong in a hurry. As I said, I’m a fan of rail. I think trolleys could add value to an already popular district.

But until I see some real rail-specific economic development pop up in other areas, I remain a skeptic of those claims.

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Categories: Utah issues
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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. David R Yale

    C,mon, Jay! You’re a journalist! Do some real research about why the trolley lines were removed from dozens of American cities. It was a conspiracy, proven in court. GM, the tire companies and the oil companies were behind it. You can get started on your research here: http://thethirdrail.net/9905/index.htm, and here: http://www.lovearth.net/gmdeliberatelydestroyed.htm, but there’s a lot more evidence than that. Your readers deserve to know the whole story, and I’m sure you’re quite capable of ferreting it out.

    • You are correct, David, and I am indeed aware of the conspiracy you referenced. No need to be so snarky, however. My blog was not primarily about how trolleys disappeared as much as about whether trolleys today can lead to economic development. Also, there is good evidence that transit ridership was in decline locally before the Salt Lake City lines were forced to sell to Pacific City Lines in about 1939. But there is no doubt GM orchestrated the decline of mass transit. It’s one reason I have attempted through the years to craft a conservative argument in favor of mass transit. We have used untold billions in tax dollars to subsidize automobiles through freeway construction, but we stopped in the early 20th century investing in transit. Both should have gotten equal treatment.

  2. NIck

    So despite the evidence given by the Mayor, 9 projects that are infusing 400 million dollars into the SLC economy, you are skeptical of the economic development returns? Maybe this will help: 400 South in SLC does not look like it has seen much economic development since the University line was built. But the numbers show a different story: over $2 billion in private investments. Go there now and you will see: 2 new housing projects under construction, new IHC facility nearing completion, expansion of Trolley square, completed housing projects on the surrounding blocks. Would those have happened without light rail? maybe, maybe not, but the light rail is there and investments have followed.

    • And that is the question, Nick, that continues to elude a real answer. I do believe there are benefits when a certain synergy already is in place, defined by a density of population, traffic patters and a certain amount of business. I think rail can enhance this, although I’ve yet to seen definitive proof of this. Sugar House has a lot of other things going for it. But despite 13 years of people telling me TRAX will spur transit-oriented developments up and down the corridor, I haven’t seen it. I’m skeptical that rail can spur something that doesn’t already exist.

  3. Daniel

    Hi Jay,

    Portland, Oregon has downtown trolleys that do spur development – their whole downtown has been redone in the past 4-5 years. The lines stop every 1-2 blocks and allow people to move freely from one area to another. When they want to move out of downtown, they transition to light rail or commuter rail. Their system is a great example that Salt Lake can learn from.

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