America Fast Forward and FrontLines: Could 30/10 work for Salt Lake City?

Existing transit network with planned extensions in dark blue and red.

Existing Utah Transit Authority transit network with planned extensions in dark blue and red.

This is the second story in our series examining how L.A. County’s 30/10 financing model could help other cities around the country.

On the eve of the 21st Century, the citizens of Salt Lake City cut the ribbon on their first light rail project, a 15-mile line connecting downtown to the city of Sandy to the south. The Salt Lake metro area was already booming and the 2002 Winter Olympics were soon coming to town.

From 2000 to 2009 the population of Salt Lake County grew over 15 percent and its southern neighbor Utah County grew a whopping 48 percent. Compare those to 3.4 percent for Los Angeles County. And despite the national economic downturn, New Geography notes, “one of the country’s largest downtown development projects is taking shape in Salt Lake City. The city’s center displays a landscape of cranes, cement-mixers and hard-hats — something all too rare in these tough times.”

The side effect of that growth — representing an additional 320,000 residents — is more people traveling around the region and more air pollution. Los Angeles and Salt Lake City are geographically kindred spirits. Both are surrounded by majestic, but smog-trapping mountains, and it usually takes a good storm to clean the air.

A light rail train bound for Sandy in the Salt Lake City area. Photo by vxla, via Flickr.

By 2006, residents had embraced the light rail line to the tune of 40,000 daily boardings. So, rather than tie their collective fate to ever-crowding freeways, residents voted that year to increase their local sales tax to pay for a dramatic expansion of commuter and light rail in the region.

FrontLines 2015, as the project is known, entails five new lines — four are light rail and one commuter rail — covering 70 miles. The four light rail lines are supposed to open by 2015 and two could debut as early as this August. Even when 2015 rolls around, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) won’t be done with its building program.

According to Gerry Carpenter, UTA Media Relations officer, once the initial commuter and light rail system is in place, the key will be increasing connections from homes and jobs to train stations. The UTA already has a list of bus rapid transit and streetcar projects, as well as bus enhancements, that it would like to roll out. Rough estimates suggest those additional 20 or so projects could cost a total of $3 billion.

The good news for the UTA is that the 2006 sales tax increase does not sunset (by contrast, the Measure R sales tax increase approved by voters here is scheduled to expire in July 2039). However, a substantial portion of that revenue source will be tied up in paying for FrontLines 2015.

But what if there were a way to borrow cheaply against those future revenues, so that those crucial projects could move forward right away? So that Utahans can immediately begin to reap the benefits of a clean and convenient transit system serving the all reaches of the Salt Lake metro area.


Light rail in the Salt Lake City basin. Photo by Nancy White, via Flickr.

That’s basically the essence of Los Angeles County’s 30/10 Program and its national counterpart, America Fast Forward: reward those cities that have taxed themselves by giving them expanded access to federal loan programs. Such loans make it possible for local areas to get the money they need to build now — before construction costs increase — and then use the sales tax revenues to pay off the loans over time.

Already, Salt Lake and Utah County residents are leading the way on local transportation investment, literally remaking a metro area that like many others in the Western U.S. has seen dramatic growth — but growth tied to the automobile. As Congress considers ways to finance the next six-year surface transportation bill that could make America Fast Forward possible, here’s hoping that legislators get inspired by the innovative solutions that local governments are spearheading.

Previously in this series: Denver’s efforts to rapidly add light rail, commuter rail and busways.