The Rio Grande Plan, updated: Putting trains underground in Depot and Granary Districts gets Salt Lake City’s attention

A plan designed by citizen-professionals that would reinvigorate train transport, remove barriers between Downtown and the city’s west side, and free up hundreds of acres to redevelopment has been making its way to some “important stakeholders” since we last reported.

Conceived in 2020, the Rio Grande Plan has lifted a lot of eyebrows since. Its new iteration, just released to the public, is an impressive mix of graphic and urban design, transportation engineering, and railroad knowledge. 

The plan’s authors tell us that their presentations have been well-received – representatives from most, if not all agencies have acknowledged they would benefit from the plan. But none think they can make the lift alone, and none so far have given indication of a willingness to lead.

Officials at Salt Lake City Hall, for their part, call the plan “forward-thinking,” “bold,” and “transformative” while in the same breath make it clear that they would need key partners to step up. 

The current challenge, plan authors tell us, is to find “champions” within key agencies to push the idea forward in its early stages. 

Building Salt Lake reached out to some of those potential leaders about the plan. Some had seen the plan’s new version, some had not. Let’s take a look.

Mapping the actors

The plan’s authors, landscape architect and designer Cameron Blakely and transportation engineer Christian Lenhart – whose expertise includes freeway ramp design and the safety of train crossings – are quick to thank others who have helped the plan along the way.

Lenhart is “amazed and grateful for all the support, guidance, and assistance Cameron and I have received over this last year.”

He summed up their vision: “All the best cities in the world have, at their centers, the beating heart of a grand train station that ties the city to its surrounding communities, making the downtown a true space for everyone to gather.”

Blakely notes a “fulfilling process,” comprised of “feedback from peers, coworkers, and friends,” that made the latest version a much more complete document.

Current conditions on 500 W and 300 S, the west side of the Depot. This is the area where the new angular glass canopy would be, over the train box. Notice the city’s notably hostile approach to the public space along 500 W. Photos by Luke Garrott.

They have presented to Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), the metropolitan planning organization, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) Board, and the City. 

Other relevant parties, and likely essential partners, are Union Pacific, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), the Utah Legislature, and the UT Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, current users of the Depot. 

Union Pacific, of course, holds key cards. While no contact has been made with them, Lenhart is confident that they will welcome with open arms the closing of so many at-grade crossings. The Rio Grande Plan also contends that UP’s Salt Lake City railyards are completely obsolete to their current operations.

The updated plan

The project’s main components are the following (quoted and edited from the Plan).

•Relocates all north-south train tracks between 900 S and 100 S in a below-grade structure called a ‘train box.’

•Relocates all transit services from the current Salt Lake Central Station at 600 W and 300 S to the historic Rio Grande Depot at 450 W and 300 S.

•Permanently disappears railroad crossings that block west-east flow in and near Downtown: 200 S and 650 W, 800 S and 650 W, and 900 S and 650 W. 

•Demolishes the 400 S viaduct, liberating nearly 2000 linear ft of street frontage – 2 1/2 blocks on each side of the resurfaced street.

•Opens up 52 acres of land from former railroad usage.

•Opens up more than 150 additional acres of privately-owned land for redevelopment.

New renderings of the Rio Grande Depot, expanded to the west. Images courtesy Cameron Blakely.

The authors noted two key changes from the first to second iteration. First, Blakely reconfigured 500 W into a complete street, “So as to activate the ground levels of the Station Center project rather than having them front onto a bus stop.” he noted.

Regional busses are moved to the north and south of the Depot, while UTA local busses share the front of the terminal on Rio Grande St with TRAX trains.

Secondly, Lenhart’s expertise with the design of freeway ramps led him to artfully engineer a way to realign UDOT’s 900 S ramp to drop at 500 W instead of West Temple, which would be a huge win for the Central 9th and Ballpark neighborhoods. 

As he saw it, “Express buses from all over the valley could get on the freeway, then get off on 500 West and 900 South, and travel straight up the street to the Rio Grande Depot transit hub.”

“But we were told on several occasions that it was more distracting to have that in there than not, so we axed it.”  

Reactions from city officials

Salt Lake City officials were first up on Lenhart and Blakely’s list for early contact, for understandable reasons. The city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) has been active in the northern part of the area for decades, and has aggressively supported TRAX rail extensions and development around stations. The City Council acts as the RDA Board, and the Mayor appoints its leadership.

The prospect of a new TIF area, possibly a Transit Redevelopment Zone (TRZ), has to be enticing to city leaders with an area so well connected to Downtown. 

The likelihood for political pushback to developing the area looks to be nil, given that its neighbors are the gritty, transitioning light industrial areas of the Granary on the east, and the Interstate on the west.

This overhead “future land use master plan” shows how the removal of tracks and shortening of Interstate ramps can transform the area. Image courtesy Cameron Blakely.

City master plans also mention future streetcar or TRAX rail extensions to the south through the Granary.

City Council Member Dan Dugan (District 6) has been an early and energetic supporter of the Plan, its authors told us. The first-term city councilman, a retired US Navy pilot who currently works in local manufacturing, said that the Plan excites him for urban planning, air quality, and equity reasons. 

Dugan is starting in the coming days a series of meetings with potential partners – with the goal of building support for a funding feasibility study. 

“I’m impressed. It’s bold, transformative, where we can have some great growth for Salt Lake City that doesn’t increase the number of cars or make it necessary to expand I-15.” 

“What are the big barriers between east and west in the city? It’s I-15 and the train tracks. They block the flow of commerce, of people, and ideas. We have big equity issues in the city that get partially addressed with removing the train tracks.”

Dugan paints a picture of a commuter coming to Downtown from the airport or Ogden, “You take a train in from the airport, come into a beautiful station, you walk to your meeting, walk to dinner, come back to the station and go back to your hotel or catch a train home.”

This new graphic shows rail expansions and minor realignments needed around the Depot – as well as how moving the central rail station a block and a half to the east, to the existing historic Rio Grande Depot, makes walkable key Downtown destinations. Image courtesy Cameron Blakely.

In small group conversations, every City Council Member has discussed the idea, he told us. There are worries about the big price tag, $300-500M, concerns Dugan says he understands. But he makes the case that if you add up all the transportation investments that the city and state will be making in and around Downtown, they will cost as much as and not achieve what the Rio Grande Plan can.

“We have to go in with eyes wide open. But if we don’t do this, and do a bunch projects separately – like adding or changing TRAX lines, FrontRunner expansion, tracks and crossings for Inland port train traffic – if you do these expensive projects separately, we won’t get the impact that doing the Rio Grande project will have,” Dugan believes.

Both Reno and Denver have made big investments recreating their rail network around a downtown central station. Images courtesy the Rio Grande Plan.

We also asked the Mayor and the RDA Director for comment.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall told us that “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to review this plan, but know that if UTA and Union Pacific are interested in exploring the project concept further, our RDA is ready to work with the rest of the City to coordinate on the feasibility of this forward-thinking effort”

For his part, RDA Director Danny Walz said that, “Yes, we are aware of the Rio Grande Plan and are excited about the concept. It is the RDA’s role to implement the City’s policies and master plans as well as the priorities of partners such as UTA and Union Pacific…Ultimately, implementation of this project would require that City plans and policies be updated and a new tax increment area be established. These efforts would be coordinated by the City Administration and approved by the City Council and involve engagement with the public and other stakeholders.”

Next steps

The plan’s authors told us that while excitement was widespread among important local stakeholders, a chorus of ‘move up the food chain’ was also repeated. ‘A champion at the state level could get this done,’ Lenhart and Blakely were told, ‘not any of us.’

It is unlikely that any single one of the improvements that the Plan looks to deliver, in air quality, equity, transportation efficiency and quality, RR crossing safety, urban design, walkability, real estate development…not any one alone can put sufficient push behind the Rio Grande Plan to have it adopted as policy, funded, and implemented. 

But what if that last interest – real estate development – and the city’s willingness to press many of the others – were to lead out? The other key players – the state and UP – may just board that train.

The Rio Grande Plan authors can be reached at CSLenhart@gmail.com and cj.blakely3@gmail.com.

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