Mar 9, 2023 - News

Salt Lake City looks at major projects to reunite East and West

A man and dog walk between a snowy rail yard between two city neighborhoods.

A man and a dog walk though the rail yard that separates the west and east sides of Salt Lake City. Photo via Salt Lake City Corporation

Salt Lake City just got funding to plan out bridges, tunnels and maybe even underground freight rail to overcome the east-west divide created by the railroads and I-15.

Driving the news: The city won about $2 million from federal transportation grants announced last month.

  • Planners are looking at a wide range of infrastructure and design solutions, from smaller-scale footbridges to burying I-15.

Why it matters: For generations, the economically and racially diverse west side has been largely cut off from the wealthier east side.

  • The first rail line split the city in 1870, and redlining in the 1930s and '40s exacerbated inequality.
  • The construction of I-15 in the 1950s eliminated neighborhoods and further divided the city.

State of play: Many west side neighborhoods are "boxed in," especially for residents who don't have cars to get to most of the city's workplaces, groceries, health care providers and amenities, city transportation director Jon Larsen told Axios.

  • Zoom in: 450 North and 800 West in the eastern Fairpark neighborhood is a little over a half mile due west of the nearest cafes and bars of Marmalade. But the shortest walking route is twice that long and forces pedestrians to parade through a freeway interchange at 600 North.

What they're saying: "It is not uncommon to see pedestrians trying to negotiate a way through trains when they’ve been stalled," members of the Westside Coalition wrote in an October letter supporting the grant.

Details: The city will use the $2 million to hire consultants, Larsen said, and evaluate the feasibility of possible projects, from total highway and railroad reconstructions to more modest footbridges.

The Rio Grande Plan, drafted by volunteers, is the most ambitious remedy on the table.

  • It calls for routing the entire downtown trainyard — 500 feet wide in some spots — underground for more than a mile.
  • That would require the cooperation of Union Pacific and other private companies, as well as a rebuild of utilities like sewer lines that serve the entire city, Larsen said.
  • Yes, but: The strategy isn't unprecedented, as Reno, Nevada, pulled off a simpler version in the 2010s.

An I-15 tunnel is another far-reaching proposal, Larsen said.

  • The concept echoes one completed in Denver, where I-70 was routed under a 4-acre park that opened in November.
  • Meanwhile, Utah officials already are looking at widening the freeway in Salt Lake City.

New bridges, tunnels and other crossings are the lowest-impact options — though the freeway and railroads make those difficult.

  • For example, city planners are struggling to complete the 9 Line Trail along 900 South because I-15 crosses over the railroad there, blocking potential bridge construction.

Reality check: Groundbreaking would likely be many years away.

  • The newest connection, a footbridge over the railroad at 300 North, is expected to be finished this summer — over a decade after it was first proposed, Larsen acknowledged.

The big picture: It'll take big and small plans together to surmount a "brutal divide" that's deepened for 150 years, Larsen said.

  • "There'll be a whole team of experts … to explore pretty much every and any opportunity to improve east-west connectivity, and do so in a way where the community's voices are heard — those who are most impacted historically have been marginalized," Larsen said.

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