The ‘audacious’ train plan that could remake a key part of Salt Lake City

1/17/2022 10:00:00 PM

“It is a fabulous idea,” said council member Ana Valdemoros. “I think it can revolutionize downtown.”

Salt Lake City, Rio Grande

“It is a fabulous idea,” said council member Ana Valdemoros. “I think it can revolutionize downtown.”

Salt Lake City leaders are seriously contemplating a plan proposed by two residents to bury the freight and commuter train tracks under 500 West from 100 South to 900 South. This plan would dramatically alter a portion of the capital city near downtown.

•But two Salt Lakers, one an engineer and the other a designer, have an idea that could end those headaches.and it could transform Salt Lake City. It’s expensive and complicated, but it’s also audacious and elegant. Some top officials are skeptical. Others are enthusiastic.

(Courtesy image) This rendering from The Rio Grande Plan created by Cameron Blakely shows an aerial view of how the rail yard in Salt Lake City could be reimagined.., now houses state offices and archives. It carries some art exhibits. That’s pretty much it.

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Yeah, what a pressing priority. It's not like aren't hundreds of homeless folks freezing immediately next to these tracks. 🙄 Yes, it's an interesting idea. The area should be developed, but burying the rails may not be the best use of our money. Yes, the crossings can be aggravating, but there are more pressing problems. Plan for eventual cut and fill, but not now.

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Letter: The inequities of westside vs. eastside in the Salt Lake Valley mapped in snowIn a recent snowstorm, I dropped off my car for detailing just west of Interstate 15 in Murray. As I walked to the Meadowbrook TRAX station to head home, 500 West challenged me with an obstacle course of rippled ice and frozen heaps of snow left by the plows. An occasional short stretch of shoveled drive or sidewalk gave me a breather as I skirted traffic at the edge of the pavement on my way north to 3900 South. I stepped off the road and into the drifts to dodge passing cars. The inequalities of the west side versus the east side would be even worse if the National Guard prevented the unvaccinated to leave their homes. There are far more unvaccinated on the west side then the east side. Racist Trib... Have you ever wondered if LDS Corp promotes religious disparities and housing discrimination due to their real estate schemes & rental properties? Do you think there is segregation by religion in different neighborhoods influenced by LDS Corp involvement in home loans? I know the tax bills aren’t equitable, that’s for damn sure

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Letter: The inequities of westside vs. eastside in the Salt Lake Valley mapped in snowIn a recent snowstorm, I dropped off my car for detailing just west of Interstate 15 in Murray. As I walked to the Meadowbrook TRAX station to head home, 500 West challenged me with an obstacle course of rippled ice and frozen heaps of snow left by the plows. An occasional short stretch of shoveled drive or sidewalk gave me a breather as I skirted traffic at the edge of the pavement on my way north to 3900 South. I stepped off the road and into the drifts to dodge passing cars. The inequalities of the west side versus the east side would be even worse if the National Guard prevented the unvaccinated to leave their homes. There are far more unvaccinated on the west side then the east side. Racist Trib... Have you ever wondered if LDS Corp promotes religious disparities and housing discrimination due to their real estate schemes & rental properties? Do you think there is segregation by religion in different neighborhoods influenced by LDS Corp involvement in home loans? I know the tax bills aren’t equitable, that’s for damn sure

“The Rio Grande Plan,” which would bury rail lines and showcase the historic depot, comes from two residents and has caught the attention of municipal leaders..Nearly every county in the state saw record increases .To reach the pedestrian bridge over the highway, I struggled over more icy mounds.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rail lines in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. | Jan. 17, 2022, 1:00 p.m. In 2022, let’s match our words with action.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Anyone who drives from the west side of Salt Lake City to the east has been stuck at times at a train crossing — getting later and later for work — as rail cars filled with electronics or home goods lumber by. It’s frustrating. But two Salt Lakers, one an engineer and the other a designer, have an idea that could end those headaches.

They imagine tearing up acres of rail yards in the capital city and replacing them with a new neighborhood. They want to return the historic Rio Grande Depot into an iconic train station. And those trains carrying all that freight would keep running — they would just roll by underground like the New York subway. Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely call it “ The Rio Grande Plan,” and it could transform Salt Lake City. It’s expensive and complicated, but it’s also audacious and elegant.

Some top officials are skeptical. Others are enthusiastic. “This is bold; this is transformative,” said Salt Lake City Council member Dan Dugan. “This is a once-in-a-generation change we need to make.” “It is a fabulous idea,” council member Ana Valdemoros said.

“I think it can revolutionize downtown.” What is The Rio Grande Plan? (Courtesy image) This rendering from The Rio Grande Plan created by Cameron Blakely shows an aerial view of how the rail yard in Salt Lake City could be reimagined. Lenhart started with two frustrations. One is the Utah Transit Authority’s Salt Lake Central Station at 325 S. 600 West.

It’s an open-air hub connecting Amtrak trains and UTA FrontRunner commuter trains with buses and a TRAX light rail line. The station is sparse and uninviting. And the city’s efforts to jump-start development on the blighted blocks around it haven’t yielded much yet, though there’s a new effort with the University of Utah to create an innovation district . The biggest problem, Lenhart argues, is that this key transit hub is in the wrong place. It is sandwiched between Interstate 15 and the Rio Grande Depot, blocking it from any easy access to neighborhoods or the downtown area.

That leads to his second frustration. The depot, built in 1910 , now houses state offices and archives. It carries some art exhibits. That’s pretty much it. So Lenhart started thinking about what it would take to revitalize the Rio Grande and make it the glorious train station it once was.

For starters, he would have to move the rail lines, and that would be hugely expensive. But it is possible, switching the lines to 500 West, right next to the depot, would be a straighter shot. Then he had an epiphany. Crews could build a “train box” underneath 500 West. Bury the tracks and you ease driving between west and east.

The city could replace the rail yard with new homes and businesses. That development would be a hefty source of revenue. “It’s like one magic puzzle piece that fits in and the whole thing comes together,” Lenhart said of burying the tracks. “Once you do that, you have a project that’s financially viable. It’s safer, it’s more efficient, and it’s much better for the city.

Why isn’t anyone doing this?” He proposes burying the tracks starting at 100 South and having the trains reemerge at road level at 900 South. This would remove four street-level train crossings and greatly reduce the use of a fifth. It would also allow the state to eliminate three viaducts built so cars can drive up and over the tracks. (Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The train box would be 33 feet deep and allow for six tracks, with two dedicated to UTA’s FrontRunner, two for freight trains and Amtrak and two for future trains, such as a proposed Tooele to Park City line. Once completed, the old rail yard would no longer be necessary, providing more than 70 acres west of downtown for development.

As Lenhart and Blakely put it, “A once-in-a-generation opportunity exists to reroute the tracks, reclaim the rail yards and reconnect our communities.” How the plan came together (Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely in front of the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. The two have developed what they call "The Rio Grande Plan," which would bury train tracks under 500 West and revitalize the Rio Grande Depot. This would free up numerous blocks for residential and commercial development.

It’s hard to overstate how much Lenhart likes trains. His 13th birthday coincided with the opening of UTA’s light rail. His present was getting to ride TRAX from the basketball arena in downtown Salt Lake City to Sandy, back and forth as much as he wanted. His family made a day of it. “It was a formative moment for me,” he said.

When he needed a job in college, he went to UTA, getting on board as a train host, assisting passengers on the south line. Now 34, he said his “happy place” is thinking about how a set of tracks could be moved to make them more efficient — not just in Utah but also throughout the country. That’s why he was familiar with the “ train trench” in Reno that buried freight trains that once split the Nevada city’s downtown in two. And he knew about the multimodal project in Denver that revitalized the historic Union Station and added an underground bus depot. And it is how he found himself thinking about what Salt Lake City could do if it was “awesomely ambitious.

” Once he had his lightning strike moment, envisioning burying rails under 500 West, Lenhart decided he had an idea too big to keep to himself. So this civil engineer started writing and writing. So many words. But he couldn’t stop. He finished his 59-page proposal and put it on SkyscraperPage.

com , a site where fellow planners and urbanists geek out. After a while, Lenhart received a message from someone he had never met. It started like this, “Hey there, my name is Cameron. This is a bit unconventional, so I apologize in advance..

.” Blakely, a 28-year-old urban designer, had read Lenhart’s manifesto — “It was quite wordy, but they were all good words” — and offered to turn it into a stunning visual of what Salt Lake City could become. Blakely grew up on a farm in rural Idaho and while his siblings were playing with tractors and horses, he built little block cities. “Cameron eventually delivered these really awesome graphic renderings. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Lenhart said.

“Not only have I found a good friend, but I found a professional.” Blakely dug in, trying to figure out what the natural pedestrian flow would be and where people could pick up a bus. He also added stylistic flair. He brought Lenhart’s idea of a modern glass canopy covering 500 West to life. This canopy would cover the spot where travelers would descend to the tracks below.

They posted their first joint proposal, and it caught the eye of .