Salt Lake City and the Fastest Growing Multi-Modal Transit System in the Nation

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I recently was able to spend some time in Salt Lake City where I attended CNU21 thanks to Somehow Salt Lake has managed to become home to the fastest growing multi-modal transit network in the nation. I made use of the streetcar and bike share while visiting, and together they made exploring the city cheap, easy and enjoyable. As the Streetsfilm above highlights, the Beehive State is quite "red", in modern parlance, politically Conservative (President Obama lost Utah by 48% in 2012). So how'd they do it? They started with a transit plan, funded it and then implemented the plan. While not meaning to shortchange the Metro transit agency in St. Louis, we voted for funding, then started planning and now face uncertain implementation (a large portion of funding generated by an increased sales tax here went to restoring service cut due to debt tied to the Blue Line extension).

Caveats (galore): Salt Lake City isn't St. Louis. The city hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. While several orders of magnitude smaller than the Summer Games, serving as a host city forced Salt Lake to do some transportation planning. The city also benefits from the lack of legacy problems that older and heavily industrial cities such as St. Louis can't avoid. Utah's population has doubled since 1980. The state's population is 80% white and 1% black. While a more Conservative city, the more homogeneous nature of city-state politics makes planning and funding easier. Salt Lake has sprawl, but the natural barriers of the Great Salt Lake and mountains to the east constrain development instead of dividing it as the rivers around St. Louis do. Lastly, a warning that the demonym "Utahns" may make you think of a tauntaun, as it did for me.

All of that considered, how has Salt Lake City and Utahns managed to plan, fund and implement such a robust transit system? What will it take for St. Louis to achieve something similar?

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  • dempster holland

    One reason slc rapid transit works is that it is a long linear city running
    north and south between the desert(and lake) and the mountains. Thus one
    or more north-south lines can serve a relatively large par of the population.
    Imagine st Louis as just being a three mile wide strip between downtown and
    As to express buses, these run (or have run) on every major expressway from the suburbs to downtown. The so-called Bus Rapid system now being
    pushed by the transit planners is essentially the traditional express=rapid
    system with a few more bells and whistles. It was pushed by Bush adminis-
    trative conservatives as a cheap alternative to light rail, which conservatives
    dislike Local transit planners are apparently pushing it in the hope that the
    public will forget about the light rail expansion promises which led to the sales
    tax increase approved by the voters..

  • Andy

    Has Metro ever considered having an express service from the suburbs to downtown? I ask only because I think part of the reason people avoid using the Metro is because of how long it takes compared to driving a car. If Metro proposed a service that ran from Chesterfield/St. Charles direct to downtown would that get any traction?

    • jhoff1257

      Part of the “Moving Transit Forward” plan includes freeway running BRTs on area freeways. Some of the routes would require additional funding from non-participating counties though. An example would be the I-70 BRT from Western St. Charles County to Downtown.

    • John R

      I think Metro already has bus express to downtown from some outer areas. I think the idea of running BRT down 40 is a bad one as I doubt it will attract much new ridership; it would be better to put the $$ to serve routes that would gain more use.

    • Eric

      MetroLink is already pretty fast. 22 minutes from North Hanley to Union Station. The same trip takes 19 minutes by car without traffic – not at significant difference.

  • Stlplanr

    Sorry, but as a former native, I think there’s something in the muddy water there. Charlotte is a majority-minority city and has seen a ton of TOD, in spite of a recession, about a much smaller system. Meanwhile, St. Louis has had 20 years of MetroLink, yet very little culture change.

    • Eric

      The Charlotte metropolitan area is growing quickly in population, STL is not. When you have to build, you might as well do it around the sexy new light rail line. When you already have abundant housing, it is harder to justify any kind of development, including TOD.

  • onecity

    SLC is in a fairly homogenous region, which helps, and not in a state that was (and still often is) bitterly divided by the Civil War. Also, for all its conservatism, SLC was founded by New Englanders that trekked west during the boom of new religious sects that occurred in the late 1800s, and regardless of their religious conservatism, the SLCers probably retained much of the active community focus (if not social progressivism) of their counterparts that stayed in New England or founded much of the Upper Midwest and the Left Coast.

    • T-Leb

      People out West have a totally different attitude compared to average StL resident.

  • Daniel

    Another factor is that 80% of Utah’s population lives in and around Salt Lake City, so it was easy to get the state government on board with promises of a mass transit system that would serve the overwhelming majority of the state’s citizens.
    However, despite the pervasive and growing transit system, less than 8% of the population that the UTA serves uses its services-and that’s using numbers that likely doublecount many of its customers because of transfers between buses and trains. SLC’s transit fees are among the highest in the nation and UTA depends heavily on a sales tax subsidy. Its most loyal customers tend to be students and staff at Utah’s public universities which can use public transit free of charge-that’s certainly why I use it.
    Utahns are proud of their mass transit system-but they don’t use it, despite regularly having the worst air quality in the nation in the winter and overcrowded freeways every day. People in the suburbs tend to use UTA to get to and from major public events to save time and money on parking, but they don’t use it in their everyday life. It will require a major cultural shift for Utahns to really, fully embrace the excellent mass transit system waiting for them.

    • John R

      Interesting stats on usage, etc. I wonder how that would compare to Metro’s service area.

      • Alex Ihnen

        And other cities… Simply stating that people don’t use because ridership = 8% of population could be misleading. Probably just 2-3% of the STL Metro area population use the new $500M I-64, but I don’t think anyone would say that no one uses it.

  • John R

    I lived in SLC in the 90s and loved it; I would have loved it even better if they had the public transit and trails system back then.

    I want to caution that SLC is not a particularly conservative place… it has had progressive mayors, voted for Obama over McCain (even the much larger SLCounty went for Obama over McCain) and is represented by democrats in the US House. And the majority of folks are not Mormon.

    One thing that I didn’t see mention as a reason for the support for transit is a strong recreation/fitness ethic in the population and a pretty strong environmental ethic there — much stronger than here. Its just part of the culture and setting. So I could see how they went the transit route over huge highway investments as the Olympics approached. From there, it seems success bred success and a strong sales tax base (with a booming population in the County) has made it possible to be a leader. Or perhaps it is the polluted western air? Maybe that explains why LA and Salt Lake City transit leaders!

    • Alex Ihnen

      Salt Lake County was 48.6% to 48.7% for Obama over McCain. Obama lost the state by 29%. Then the county voted for Romney over Obama by 20%. And the President failed to win a county in 2012 and lost the state by 48%. SLC isn’t as Conservative as 2012 would have one believe, but it may very well be much more Conservative than any other major city.

      • John R

        That’s pretty silly…. Salt Lake City hasn’t has a republican mayor since the 1970s and recent mayors such as Rocky Anderson have been quite progressive. Certainly the much larger County is more conservative, but using 2012 results where Mitt Romney had huge ties is a rather meaningless data point. Is the county more conservative than places like Cobb and Maricopa Counties (which went overwhelmingly for Romney as well? ) Maybe, maybe not.

        But Salt Lake City certainly is not much more conservative than any other major city, and I doubt the county is either.

        • Eric

          Presidential elections are the best test of political orientation. In conservative states, the Democrats are pretty conservative too because otherwise they wouldn’t have a chance of winning. Conservative Democrats end up winning almost half the local elections, but presidential votes are overwhelmingly Republican. It’s the same in liberal states like Massachusetts, just in reverse.

          • John R

            Eric, but in the case of Salt Lake City, the presidential vote is proving that the town just isn’t conservative when compared to many other places. For example, in this 2004 analysis, the city was the 95th most liberal city out of 224 with a population over 100,000.

            It was about as liberal as Austin and more liberal than places such as Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte and Indianapolis, let alone truly conservative places like Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs and Provo. (Saint Louis City was 20th most liberal.) And certainly when it comes to Salt Lake’s positions on the environment, gay rights and immigration, etc. there is no mistaking it for a leading conservative city.

            The liberalism factor drops a significant amount when accounting for the entire Salt Lake County, but it is a mistake for the service area for Salt Lake’s transit system to be thought of as some completely conservative place with liberals as some sort of odd freak of nature. And Salt Lake City’s current mayor is a certified urban planner… heck, maybe our next when should be, too!

          • Eric

            Austin, Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte and Indianapolis all include a very large portion of the metropolitan area in their municipal boundaries, including neighborhoods that otherwise would be considered suburbs. SLC does not. I don’t know the exact demographics of SLC, but I would expect it to be more like STL – mostly minorities and single whites – in other words much more liberal than the area as a whole.

  • Don

    It is facinating how such a conservative city and state could have such a progressive transit plan. One reason, I suspect, is youth. I’ve been to
    SLC several times on business and it has always seemed to me to be a very youthful city.

    But there is another issue. Even as I type this, I fear I will regret it, but I’m going to put it out there: how much does race play a roll?

    • jhoff1257

      I agree with Don. I think in St. Louis race plays a major role. It’s not something people like to talk about, but it’s there. I live in Chesterfield and have many friends in St. Charles. They all say the same thing. They don’t want different kinds of people coming to their communities. It’s all a misplaced fear that crime will skyrocket because an express bus or light rail train comes to your neighborhood, even though criminals drive cars too. I will say that it’s not everyone, I know a several people in both areas that would love to have a faster way to get to the City and other places. But the majority is a different story. It’s also worth noting that with the severe lack of walkability in those areas, it’s not like someone could walk off a train and into someone’s house…not to mention, who’s going to steal a television and jump on a train or bus that stops every couple miles?

      I always find it ironic when they all bitch and moan about traffic being so bad. Hey, I have an idea…

      • Don

        I’ve never seen anyone riding the Metro with a TV on their lap,….

        I grew up on the East side where I was living when the Metro came on line. I’ve heard all of those things at that time and ever since.

        I also think the other half of the equation is too many lawmakers refuse to fund metro expansion because they think it only benefits black folks and their constituents want roads, not rails.

        This isn’t unique to St Louis. I’ve heard the same thing in Atlanta where MARTA trains are relatively new.

        SLC, on the other hand — as Alex pointed out — is remarkably homogeneous.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Yes. Not to overstate the issue, but in Salt Lake the transit is for “us” and in St. Louis it is often seen to be for “them”, and maybe “us” when the Cardinals play.

        • John R

          Someone who used to live in Edwardsville area told me recently that voters there (Madision Co.?) turned down metro line for these kinds of fears. I knew Saint Chas. did but never heard that about Madison County. Any truth to it? I’d love to be able to take Metro out to Edwardsville.

          • Don

            It’s my recollection from years ago that is basically correct. Before construction started on the first line, voters in St Clair County approved a sales tax to help fund metro and voter in Madison County (Edwardsville) did not (I can’t recall if a tax failed or politicians didn’t even allow it to get to a vote). It was widely believed that the reason was the same as St Charles who voted against years later. What’s funny is that once Metro opened, it was wildly popular with Illinoisans going to Cardinals and Rams games. Madison County politicians started having second thoughts and wanted in on the deal with a line. Metro informed them that lines were years in the making with Federal funding taking years to procure, etc. and they couldn’t even be considered for a line for 10 years. Now that was 20 years ago, and I’ve not heard or read anything about it since. Metro has had other expansion plans and I’m not sure if there is currently even talk of a Madison County line.

          • John R

            Thanks, Don. Hopefully they’ll have it someday.

          • 1996-1997 was a very bad period for transit tax inititiatives in the StL region. St Charles failed in Aug 96 and Nov 96; Madison failed Nov 97; StL County failed Nov 97. Only StL City passed in Nov 97.

            St Clair passed their tax in Nov 93 just after the initial opening of MetroLink. Both County and City passed a smal tax in Aug 94.

          • Don

            That you for that dose of reality.

      • Andy

        My mom lives in St. Charles and she has mentioned that her neighbors have the same “concerns” about crime going up if the Metro ever came out there. People are ridiculous.

  • Donald

    Wait, you mean putting together a plan, THEN funding, THEN implementing it works better then throwing money at the St Louis Metro just to throw money around and hoping something sticks? Who would have thought…and I was always told before starting a business you better put together a business plan before going after capital…