SALT LAKE CITY — A return to yesteryear could be one of the most important pieces to the future of Salt Lake.
Call it downtown rolling.
City leaders have unveiled four potential lines for slow-moving streetcars to shuttle pedestrians around downtown, which they hope will bolster business and development.
"UTA has done a fabulous job of constructing light-rail lines that bring people from all over the metropolitan area to downtown," said D.J. Baxter, head of Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City. "Once they get downtown, they need to have an easy way to get around."
The city's initial line, which could cost as much as $70 million, would ideally service downtown staples, such as Main Street and the Salt Palace, before heading south.
Portland, Ore., has proved the poster child for streetcar success. The $55 million the city pumped into its initial line has turned into $3.5 billion in private investment over the last decade, officials there say.
"We understand what the Portland experience did in a boom time … is a different set of cards than what we have right now," Charlie Hales, of the architecture and design firm HDR, told the City Council last week. "But we're very bullish on this."
Hales and Baxter point to Kenosha, Wis., a town of 100,000 that has seen multi-story buildings sprout up along a single streetcar line that connects with a major commuter rail to Chicago.
In Seattle, Baxter said, streetcars have rejuvenated an area that was once "almost indistinguishable from our Granary District."
"That would be very much a sweet spot to serve with rail access," Baxter said of the west-side haven for old warehouses and busted railroad ties.
When such a line might become a reality in Salt Lake City, however, depends entirely on funding.
City officials expect to hear next month if they have been awarded federal money for the Sugar House streetcar project. Another round of federal grants — to the tune of $280 million — has also just become available.
Len Simon, the city's lobbyist in Washington, D.C., told the council earlier this month he expects similar funding opportunities in the future.
"Streetcars are a growth area," he said. The latest round of grants "is a good indication of the strong support of the part of the administration for streetcars."
Christian Harrison, chairman of the Downtown Community Council, toured the Portland streetcar line earlier this year and "came away being converted."
"We're very excited about it," said Harrison, who lamented how much of downtown is being used for surface parking. "We're excited about the opportunity to fill in downtown."
While there are differences between the cities, Harrison said there are no "insurmountable" obstacles to duplicating Portland's success in Utah.
"Our weather isn't as cloudy as Portland's," he joked. "But otherwise, I think we're good to go."
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