Who thought building a light rail extension could be so easy? With funding and a supportive public behind him, Utah Transit Authority (UTA) General Manager John Inglish is finding out just how easy it can be.
Inglish, who has been with UTA for 25 years and general manager for five, says getting public backing was never an easy thing to come by. In 1992, when UTA tried to raise funds for the light rail project called TRAX, the public, having no faith in the project, voted against a quarter-cent sales tax referendum. “You had a community that was basically convinced that nobody would ride TRAX,” says Inglish.
Although money for the project was not in hand, UTA could not pass up the opportunity to acquire the right-of-way to the Union Pacific Railroad line, a $500,000 acquisition, for the projects’ future use. “The Union Pacific corridor runs right through the densest part of Utah’s urban core,” Inglish says.
Once the corridor was acquired, UTA was able to secure 80% federal funding for the project. “Having the right-of-way we were able to move forward and get federal support for the actual construction of the line,” he says. The fact that the Olympics were coming to town didn’t hurt either.
Once the TRAX line opened December 1999, a year ahead of schedule and $20 million under budget, public opinion about transit seemed to change overnight. With eager riders curious to try out the new line, TRAX posted an impressive 45,000 opening day ridership, exceeding all expectations.
“You could literally walk down the aisles and people would be saying, ‘Isn’t this great, I never thought it would work,’” says Inglish.
The 15-mile north/south TRAX line, with construction costs totaling $312 million, has been a success ever since with an average daily ridership of 18,000. TRAX runs 23 Siemens SD-100 railcars, which are filled to capacity during rush hour. “We are in desperate need of additional capacity,” Inglish says.
Extending light rail
With TRAX a success, the quarter-cent sales tax referendum was passed in 2000, making funding available for future projects, including the university light rail project, an east/west extension of the TRAX line.
The University Line will operate from the Delta Center to Rice-Eccles Stadium, the venue for the upcoming Olympic Games, on the University of Utah campus. Once complete, the line will provide rail service to nearly 46,000 students, faculty and staff. Project costs totaled $118.5 million for the 2.3-mile extension, including $25 million spent on 10 Siemens SD-160 railcars.
“Many people told us this could not be done in time for the Olympics,” says Inglish. Under a strict full funding agreement with the federal government, UTA’s light rail project was reviewed in August by the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee and the Highway Department to determine whether a December opening date could be met. “The line will be completed in time to open on Dec. 15,” he says confidently.
Not one to wait for the downhill-ski jump snow to settle, Inglish has set plans to extend the new line beyond the university once the Games conclude. “We move immediately … through the center of the university campus up to a major regional medical complex,” he says.
As Salt Lake City shines under the spotlight of the XIX Winter Olympic Games, to be held in February, UTA will be ready to greet spectators with a performance that has been five years in the making.
Although many Olympic activities, including opening and closing ceremonies, take place in the core Salt Lake area, the Winter Olympics are not concentrated in one area, making transportation a key issue.
“We are responsible for all the spectator transportation in the Salt Lake Valley area,” says Inglish. With 1.6 million tickets sold and various venues with capacity topping 20,000, that’s a lot of people to move. To serve these olympic-proportion crowds, UTA borrowed 700 buses from all over North America.
“Most of the transit systems are sending us between 10 and 15 buses,” he says. “They are also sending us their operators, who are taking their vacation time so they can come to Utah to help operate this service.”
UTA is using property adjacent to three maintenance facilities as temporary parking for the buses as they arrive. Twenty-nine light rail vehicles on loan from Dallas are also on their way.
The Salt Lake City Olympic Committee strategy for transportation is geared toward people driving 20 to 30 miles to large parking lots situated five miles from venue locations, where they will be picked up by bus and transported to the actual venue. Light rail will primarily be used to carry people from the suburbs to the downtown area where parking is not as plentiful.
A transportation demand management system, used with great success in Atlanta during the games, was implemented to encourage carpooling and change in work hours as ways for day-to-day routines to continue smoothly. “We are not reducing our regular level of service, we are adding to it,” says Inglish, who spent time in Sydney studying how things were run at the summer games. “It was absolutely superb, and hopefully we will do that as well.”
UTA has engaged in test runs of the transportation strategy during large-capacity events. “We are taking every opportunity we can to test things out,” says Inglish.
Security for the Olympics was a big deal long before the Sept. 11 attacks, though that day certainly made it more of a priority.
“I think there has been renewed security attention since then,” Inglish says. The Olympic Committee has undertaken a massive security plan involving all law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service.
“We will be quadrupling our police force,” says Inglish. “We will be participating in all the aspects of Olympic security.” About 150 UTA transit system volunteers have been given special training.
In addition, certain light rail will not run complete lines and buses will be used to transport people to the venue.
“Keeping the rail line out of an area where there are huge numbers of people is partly a security issue and partly an issue of crowd control,” he says.
UTA has its own internal command and control center that is directly linked to the Utah Department of Transportation traffic control center, which will direct and oversee any security measures such as evacuations. “There are several hundred cameras throughout the urban area to which our transit dispatchers have access,” says Inglish.
Ridership is strong
“Most people think of Utah as some rural cowboy country,” says Inglish, who has seen UTA grow from virtually nothing to a successful, 30 million combined transit/rail annual ridership system serving 1.8 million people (75% of Utah’s population), in a 1,400-square-mile service area.
UTA’s bus fleet is 600 vehicles strong — five are CNG with three hybrid-electrics on order — covering 10,000 bus stops in a six-county area. At present, 50 buses are GPS satellite linked, with automated vehicle locating systems and automated passenger counters. By year’s end, all buses will have the system installed, allowing for real-time tracking.
“The critical link will be the GPS chips on the light railcars that are connected to our central computer,” says Inglish. “This system will notify the bus driver whether his train connection has come and gone, or whether it is running late.”
Average daily ridership for buses dropped 2% this year from 85,000 to 83,000. “We expected that because we modified and reoriented a lot of our bus routes,” says Inglish. “We had people who bypassed the bus and simply drove to the rail station.”
About 65% to 70% of those riders are not transit dependent. “Our economy has been doing well for quite a number of years. We have a high choice ridership,” Inglish says.
Communicating to the customer has always been a priority for UTA. “We do a significant amount of advertising spending, typically 1.5% to 2.5% of the total operating budget on promotion,” says Inglish.
Planning for commuter rail
Expansion for UTA continues beyond its light rail corridor.
“We are in negotiations with the Union Pacific Railroad on a 150-mile acquisition,” says Inglish. “This will virtually give us all of the rail corridor access we need in this region for the rest of the century.”
Plans for an ambitious 120-mile commuter line running between Brigham City to Payson are in the works. Acquisition of the corridor amounts to more than $100 million.
As part of the acquisition, UTA is obtaining additional rights-of-ways that will provide the corridors for light rail extensions that will branch east and west into other core urban areas and possible bus rapid transit. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” says Inglish. “I kind of look at it like the deal of the century.”