Sometime within the next decade, Davis County residents should have themselves a train.
Exactly where that train might go, and who it might best serve, still remain as cloudy as the Great Salt Lake. It could be light rail, winding its way through city streets, or it could be commuter rail, zooming between Brigham City and Salt Lake City.One thing is almost certain: It won't happen before the major road projects, such as Legacy Parkway, I-15 expansion, or U.S. 89 widening.
Another thing is also certain. Without some sort of rail system through Davis County, transportation systems won't have much prayer of succeeding, said John Inglish, general manager for the Utah Transit Authority.
"Commuter and light rail is an important part of our transportation plans. We cannot continue to pour billions of dollars into highway systems," Inglish said. "There isn't land, there isn't money, and it becomes less effective every time you build one."
Inglish would prefer a light-rail system in Davis County, with the commuter rail between Brigham City and Salt Lake City stopping only two or three times in the county.
In many ways, Davis County is very similar to Salt Lake City suburbs like Sandy and Draper. With denser residential areas, more stops in shorter distances would be needed. For that, Inglish said that the quick stop-and-go features of light rail would serve the county better than the slower acceleration rates of commuter rail. Commuter rail, with top speeds of 90 to 120 mph, works more efficiently for long-range trips of more than 30 miles.
But many problems face light rail, Inglish said, such as a difficulty in determining alignments and finding right-of-way. Even the option of using existing streets, which is the only realistic option for inter-city transit, would likely be met with resistance in Davis County. Primarily, county leaders would fear that the light rail system would bring less traffic to the commercial areas than a wider road.
On the flip side, commuter rail has garnered much more attention than light rail in Davis County, even if the benefits for residents would be fewer. One main reason for this, Inglish said, is that people can see the right-of-way for the train, along the Denver & Rio Grande line west of I-15.
Getting that land, however, could be costly and time consuming.
"The number of issues that need to be discussed are complex, and each one needs to be addressed," Inglish said.
Even if negotiations ran smoothly and efficiently, the funding for construction would not be there quite yet. Estimates for commuter rail construction place the bill at $40 million per mile, a significant tab which would have to be partially funded with taxes, Inglish said.
Another problem would be the lack of ridership, according to UTA predictions. Currently, not enough people could access the system conveniently.
Essentially, the population of Utah's third largest county needs to become more dense, especially near the future commuter line on the west side of the county. Much of the population now resides east of I-15, with the western side reserved for industry. According to predictions, that should change in the next decade, with much of the expected 20 percent growth in communities close to the rail line, such as Centerville and Layton.
Until then, a commuter rail line on the west side would lack significant ridership because it would simply be too far away from people.
"Most people will have to get in a car, and if they're in a car they will just drive where they need to go," said Will Jefferies, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
Officials in Davis County, who have fought for increased highway spending, agree that currently their residents simply won't ride. Because of that, said Bountiful Mayor John Cushing, the transportation focus needs to remain on more asphalt, not rail lines.
"The Legacy Highway and restructuring of I-15 are the priorities," said Cushing, who is also the chairman for the WFRC's transportation committee. "Commuter rail should not take precedence over those."
Nearly everyone involved agreed that all of the solutions - commuter rail, expanded freeways, bike trails, and bus systems - need to work hand in hand. Otherwise, any hope for successful transportation will fade.
For example, if commuter rail is not built, nearly 300,000 people will use the freeways each day by 2020. Even with an expanded I-15 and Legacy Highway, the current three to four hours of bottleneck traffic could increase to as much as seven or eight hours each day, said Bob Parry, transportation planner for the Utah Department of Transportation.
Admittedly, commuter rail would only reduce that number by 10-15 percent, Parry said. The beauty of commuter rail, however, is that much of that ridership would occur during the busiest times.
"The big advantage is that commuter rail takes the peak loads that highways can't handle," Parry said.
Getting people to ride commuter rail is a matter of convenience and comfort, Parry said. By placing the station near residential centers, and providing enough space for the people to sit down and relax during the trip, reluctant residents will begin to warm to the idea, Parry said.
Such planning is vital to the success of any commuter rail program, and any transportation plan in general, said Marc Heileson, who has led the fight against the Legacy Highway for the Sierra Club.
"With that narrow of a corridor, they have got to stop urban sprawl or they will cut their own throats," Heileson said.
This is why the Sierra Club has fought projects like the Legacy Highway, which it claims not only damages the environment but also encourages more driving and more sprawl.
The club does not oppose road construction per se, he pointed out, but just road projects which it believes equate to poor planning. Heileson said he recognizes the importance of all solutions.
"We need the highways, we need the commuter rail and we need everything else," he said. "But unless they change their planning, that county will boom and then bust."