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Biden admin budgets $316 million to ‘double track’ Utah’s FrontRunner

The Utah Transit Authority's FrontRunner stops at the Salt Lake Central station, March 10, 2023.
Sean Higgins
The Utah Transit Authority's FrontRunner stops at the Salt Lake Central station, March 10, 2023.

Utah’s FrontRunner commuter rail service could be in line for an upgrade after the Biden administration included $316 million for it in next year’s federal budget.

Congress, of course, has the power of the purse and the final budget is always a sharp-elbowed negotiation. Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney were both tepid on the White House’s initial budget announcement.

The money proposed for the nearly $1 billion “FrontRunner Forward Strategic Double Track Project” would make the Wasatch Front commuter trains twice as frequent by “double tracking” the rail line at various points between the terminus stations in Ogden and Provo.

During current peak commute times, FrontRunner trains operate on a 30-minute frequency. According to the Utah Department of Transportation, the addition of more double tracking would allow for service every 15 minutes.

“The FrontRunner is the backbone of the system,” said UDOT FrontRunner project director Brian Allen. “The more service you can provide on FrontRunner, the better service you can provide everywhere because it has so many connections to all those buses, light rail, even active transportation trails.”

Currently, about a fourth of the system is double track, Allen said. The upgrade would also improve dependability.

“So that means that it's limited on the service it can provide and that any delay that occurs in the system cascades throughout it, so the more double tracking you can add, the more reliable the service will be.”

Allen said the project would allow Utah to effectively double the amount of double track that’s currently part of the FrontRunner line.

Transit advocates are also excited about the prospect of more frequent, reliable commuter train service along the Wasatch Front.

“That gives you a whole lot more flexibility in when you can travel,” said Mike Christensen, the executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association. “And the big saying that all of us involved in transit like to say is that ‘frequency is freedom.’ So the more frequent a service operates, the more people will ride it.”

He added that the FrontRunner could theoretically run every 15 minutes now but it’s “not really possible in practice to be able to run it that frequently because of the potential for delays.”

The current timeline has the grant finalized late next year with the project becoming operational in late 2028.

“We're in the beginning of the cycle, so we're still working on the environmental documents and finishing up what's called project development,” Allen said. “It's very promising that we're in the president's budget. However, that doesn't guarantee you have the funding.”

While advocates say it’s encouraging to see progress, there are concerns about how far out the completion date is, and given Utah’s rapid growth, that the project would not be enough to address the booming population.

“I would like to see this go forward a whole lot quicker,” Christensen said. “We would actually want to be doing something more along the lines of quad tracking and where we'd have multiple tracks so that we could run multiple different services throughout the same corridor.”

In the meantime, the Utah Legislature also set aside over $200 million in the state budget for commuter rail enhancements next year.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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