SALT LAKE CITY — Sugar House is full.
At least when it comes to vehicle traffic. The fast-growing Salt Lake neighborhood has seen explosive residential and commercial development that's brought an onslaught of new travel activity, and the attendant congestion and parking issues.
But a new effort funded by the city, via a freshly minted sales tax hike, could bring some relief thanks to increased transit service through the bustling area that earned its moniker from a 19th century failed experiment in sugar beet processing.
Salt Lake City Transportation Director Jon Larsen didn't mince words when describing the state of vehicle volumes in the area.
"We’ve hit peak capacity for cars," Larsen said. "The only way we’ll be able to accommodate more people is through walking, biking and transit. We cannot accommodate more cars."
To that end, Larsen said the city is spending $5.3 million this year, and in the years ahead, to subsidize expanded service for three east-west bus routes operated by the Utah Transit Authority, including the busy route 21, which runs along 2100 South through the heart of Sugar House.
Larsen said the program is among the first of its kind in the country.
"We’re paying UTA to run more busses in SLC," Larsen said. "We’re the first city in the state, one of about half a dozen cities nationwide that are doing something similar."
The program, which is scheduled to begin in August, will expand service for route 21 riders as well as route 2, which runs along 200 South, and route 9, which follows 900 South. Larsen said headways, or the times between buses, will be reduced to 15 minutes and some lines will also get expanded hours and days of operation.
Sugar House Chamber of Commerce chairman Benjamin Sessions said merchants in the area are of mixed sentiment on how bad the traffic and parking issues have become, but noted there's a consensus in support of enhanced transit service.
"When I speak with longtime Sugar House residents and business owners, there is a sense that parking and traffic has become much more challenging," Sessions said. "But, for new business owners from other states and bigger cities and residents new to the area, the traffic doesn’t bother them as much.
"I think everyone, though, sees having more transit-related options as a positive."
Sessions also weighed in on the stalled S-Line extension, which was originally planned as the first leg of a fixed-rail transit solution that would push a bit further east into Sugar House then head north at some point to connect with the TRAX Red Line. However, 5 ½ years after opening, the city's only streetcar is still just trundling from Fairmont Park to the South Salt Lake Central Pointe TRAX Station. And, Session said, he's yet to hear a viable plan for moving the project forward.
"As far as I've heard, there’s really no specific proposal that’s in the works," Sessions said.
He also noted S-Line expansion has been a point of contention that's divided opinion among Sugar House residents and business owners.
"I know there is a real split there and am very aware that some business owners on 11th did not want the streetcar," Session said. "But I’ve also spoken with quite a few other owners that see it as a necessary expansion."
Along with the investment in expanded transit, the city will also spend about $1 million annually to improve the safety and comfort of bus stops and shelters along the featured routes.
The financing comes from the so-called Funding Our Future program, which Salt Lake City created after approving a 0.5 cent sales tax increase in May 2018. The increment generates some $33 million per year and, according to a city website dedicated to the effort, is aimed at avoiding a future that could be dimmed "without investing more in our critical public services."
Besides the $6.3 million that will come out of the fund for service expansion and sprucing up bus stops, Larsen said the city will also be spending some money on a marketing effort to highlight the updates to bus service in specific and the pluses of riding transit in general.
UTA's Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Nichol Bourdeaux told the Deseret News that the agency's annual "change day" in August will be one of the biggest ever with over two dozen route changes happening, including the new service options in Salt Lake City.
Bourdeaux called the expansion agreement a win for both UTA and Salt Lake City.
"The city gets the service they're seeking in their transit master plan … and we get to add this new service to what we do regionally," Bourdeaux said. "It's a plus for us and them. It's something we've been working on for the past two years and we're really excited to see what we can do."
Bourdeaux said some of the changes will provide new transit connections for residents on the west side of Salt Lake and, for certain times of the day, wait times between buses will be down to just seven minutes on route 2, one of the agency's busiest bus lines.
Data provided by UTA shows weekday boardings with school in session over the past year on route 21 ran between 2,000-2,400, while route 9 was between 600-700, and route 2 saw 1,800-1,900.
UTA is also planning to deploy five new electric buses for use on route 2, which runs through the center of the downtown business district. That option was made possible thanks to a $5.4 million federal grant. The zero-emission vehicles cost about $1 million each — twice as much as the diesel-powered versions.
A UTA spokesman said while the five electric vehicles will be used on route 2, some diesel buses will also still be in use on the line.10 comments on this story
Bourdeaux also noted that when it comes to transit, bus service is the engine that's driving momentum in Utah.
"Bus service is still our No. 1 ridership drive," Bourdeaux said. "People that need it and use it just love it."
As for stalled out expansion plans for the S-Line, Bourdeaux said a group convened last winter will be conducting a feasibility study for what route an extended streetcar line would take. That work, she said, is being overseen by Salt Lake City officials and should lay the groundwork for next steps for the transit line.