Editorial: Utah cities could connect by passenger rail in 5 years if a state agency can coordinate billions in federal funding

In recent years, the Wasatch Front has enjoyed the addition of commuter rail, light rail, and a streetcar. However, options are still limited for those wishing to travel beyond the Wasatch Front without a car. 

For the past decade, I’ve been researching how Utah could expand passenger rail across our state and connect to cities in neighboring states and do so cost effectively using existing freight rail infrastructure. 

Yes, it would be wonderful, if we built 200+ mph high-speed rail. However, high-speed rail is extremely expensive, and the timeline for getting it planned and built puts its implementation decades into the future. 

What I’m proposing could reasonably be implemented in five years, if we get our ducks in a row.

The plan 

My masters degree research revealed that Utah could easily partner with Amtrak to access existing Union Pacific freight tracks in order to extend passenger rail service beyond the Wasatch Front north to Logan, southwest to Cedar City, and southeast to Grand Junction. 

Unfortunately, there are no railroad tracks running to St. George. In fact, Washington County is one of the most populated counties in the nation to lack a rail connection. Since extending a rail connection from Cedar City to St. George is a whole separate process, my proposal calls for a dedicated bus to make that connection until a rail connection can be planned and built. 

I also propose a dedicated bus to connect between Green River and Moab. The rail spur that extends almost to Moab is wrapped up in an ongoing uranium tailings clean-up project that complicates extending passenger rail service to Moab for probably the next decade. Here’s a map of the vision that I just outlined.

Of course, the map above is just the start. The hope is that once Utah begins to realize this vision, neighboring states would also want connections. By using existing freight rail, we could also connect beyond Utah to Las Vegas, Reno, Boise, Idaho Falls, and Denver via Cheyenne. 

Additionally, my research showed that the lack of public transit throughout rural Utah has detrimental economic impacts for our state. As such, it would be beneficial to explore the possibility of having minimum bus service that would connect all of Utah’s 29 counties. 

In order to advocate for this vision, I created the nonprofit Utah Rail Passengers Association in 2018.

Now’s the time – Utah needs to catch this train

Even before November’s election, Democrats in the US House of Representatives were working on proposals that would potentially fund an expansion of passenger rail across Utah and into neighboring states. While the exact details have varied as the bills have evolved, the gist of the proposals is to provide $55 billion over five years for the expansion of the nation’s passenger rail network and improvement of Amtrak stations and services. 

Federal funding for capital improvements would be offered to states at an 80% match. Federal funding could also be used to pay a portion of operating costs during the first five years of operations. Now that Biden has been elected president, it’s safe to assume that “Amtrak Joe” will be in favor of this funding proposal.

You can’t do this in a car. President-Elect Joe Biden (D) with PA Senator Arlyn Spector (R) in 2009. Photo courtesy WikiCommons.

I am one among a group of passenger rail advocates and elected officials from Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah along with colleagues on the national level from the national Rail Passengers Association and Transportation for America, who are working on putting together a Congressionally-sanctioned multi-state intercity passenger rail commission similar to the Southern Rail Commission

We don’t know what this thing will be named yet, or whether it will be one large commission or a couple smaller commissions. But we do know that it will be critical to start organizing in order to take advantage of federal infrastructure/stimulus funding that Congress will likely be making available soon. 

But who in Utah can lead?

Unfortunately, I am the sole representative from Utah among this group, and Utah is behind most of the other states in being able to take advantage of federal funding.

As I have sought out champions for expanding passenger rail within Utah’s government and quasi-government agencies, I have discovered a problem – a lack of discernible jurisdiction and authority for the project.

Ideally, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) would be the one to champion such a state-wide/interstate vision. The state agency has recently included FrontRunner commuter rail double-tracking and electrification on its to-do list. 

Yet UDOT has never been tasked with any responsibility for overseeing any level of state-wide public transit. That task has been given solely to various transit districts around the state. 

Because of this division, Utah has highways state-wide but only has public transit within transit districts that all have limited geographic extents. Therefore, transit districts—like the Utah Transit Authority (UTA)—are not willing to champion proposals that extend beyond their geographies. The map below illustrates the problem.

To summarize, Utah could lose out on billions in federal funding for passenger rail, simply because we lack the institutional capacity to take advantage of it. To add insult to injury: while UDOT is not putting any effort into planning for passenger rail, it is planning for flying cars—even though they admit that flying cars would never replace trains in terms of capacity.

If expanding passenger rail across Utah is important to you, please reach out to your members of the Utah Legislature and mention this article. Another great way to get involved is to join the national Rail Passengers Association, which has a ton of resources for doing advocacy at the federal level. The Utah Rail Passengers Association is also seeking donations, so I can continue advocating for passenger rail in Utah. We are also seeking sponsors, who are interested in creating long-term partnerships.

Mike Christensen (Twitter @MRC_SLC) recently graduated from the University of Utah with a Masters of City and Metropolitan Planning. He is employed as the Executive Director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Rail Passengers Association.

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