Arguments and actions against bringing light rail service directly to the entrance of Salt Lake City’s new international airport, which serves over 23 million passengers annually, are shortsighted and irresponsible. I commend the City Council for re-engaging the stakeholders to try to resolve the financial shortfall and bring TRAX to the terminal entrance.
While the rebuild of Salt Lake City’s airport is the most expensive construction project in Utah’s history — $3 billion — locating TRAX at the main entrance represents less than 2 percent of the total airport reconstruction cost. And a main-entrance TRAX stop responds to the project’s long-term goal: to build a convenient, functional, sustainable, cost-efficient and beautiful airport as a gateway to our region and state.
During the airport’s intensive planning process, designers concluded that a single, main entrance to the airport was important for all to enable a smooth, safe functioning airport. This included an elevated TRAX line at the new terminal. Alternative designs that kept TRAX at ground level far from the terminal entrance were determined to adversely affect travelers’ safety and experience, as well as airport functions.
To implement the preferred approach, the city and its partners would have to find additional revenues — just as they had done successfully on other airport light rail decisions.
The current mayor’s decision to abandon the preferred alternative and move TRAX away from the main entrance will add undue time and inconvenience to everyone traveling by surface to and from the airport. The mayor’s secretly developed proposal will make many passengers and employees opt to use their vehicles to get to the airport.
The impacts of this decision — on travelers, our air quality and our reputation as a leader in transportation — will last for generations. These factors were key considerations in the original airport light rail design — a design that exemplifies smart, sensible decision-making. Over the past decade, Salt Lake City has worked hard to make good decisions about bringing light rail to the airport. The original Airport TRAX line design would have brought light rail to the edge of the airport property and built a separate people-mover system to carry people to the terminal. Such a system would have added transfer time and additional cost. After several months of review, airport managers agreed to bring light rail service directly to the terminal, rather than developing a separate system on airport property. At that time, a new airport terminal was still only a vision. Extending TRAX into a potential new terminal was left for a future day.
Today, traveling by light rail from downtown Salt Lake to the airport takes about 15 minutes — a convenience lauded nationally as a reason air travelers should visit Salt Lake City. It also offers convenience for the thousands of airport employees, many of whom use TRAX on a daily basis. As TRAX hours of operation increase, use will only improve.
The financial challenges are real but surmountable. Salt Lake City overcame similar challenges in financing the North Temple Viaduct and airport TRAX line. When designing the line, Salt Lake City and UTA discovered that a necessary serpentine design would have worked poorly unless the North Temple Viaduct was rebuilt — at an additional cost of $70 million.
A collaborative effort of all key parties — Utah Transit Authority, TRAX contractors, Salt Lake City, the state of Utah and adjacent property owners — resulted in a workable, affordable solution. In fact, the project ended up coming in ahead of schedule and a lower cost than originally projected. The partners established a range of funding options and a combination that would work without raising taxes. The key to North Temple’s success, and to any endeavor of this magnitude, is identifying a range of options to reduce the burden on any one jurisdiction or source and working together to achieve the goal.
Partners with Salt Lake City Airport identified a range of potential funding sources for the TRAX station at the terminal entrance, including parking revenues, airport concession revenues, rental car taxes, passenger fees, federal funding and some local and state revenues — all without new impacts on local taxpayers.
The successful approach of past airport TRAX decisions has not been pursued to date in the mayor’s decision on the airport TRAX line station.
The City Council is right to re-open the conversation, and consider alternatives for salvaging a light rail station at the new airport terminal entrance, insisting on participating in this decision, opening up the process to the public and identifying a more durable solution. I hope the airport partners will revisit and reconstruct solutions for our region’s long-term benefit.
Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.