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As growth clogs I-15, UTA says FrontRunner — with investments — is poised to meet demand

A look at the tail end of the Utah Transit Authority's FrontRunner, stopped at Salt Lake Central station, March 10, 2023.
Sean Higgins
A look at the tail end of the Utah Transit Authority's FrontRunner, stopped at Salt Lake Central station, March 10, 2023.

What if Utah had regular train service as frequent as every 15 minutes? With the Wasatch Front projected to balloon as the state grows, there’s going to be a need for transportation other than cars.

With a total price tag of over $900 million, the plan to expand the Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner would make the commuter train twice as frequent during peak rider hours.

The Utah Department of Transportation’s plan is to double the existing rail lines at strategic locations along the route between Ogden and Provo. All told, the project would double roughly half of the existing track.

“As time goes on, I-15 is going to continue to get slower and FrontRunner is going to, at a minimum, stay the same travel time, if not get faster if we continue to improve it,” Utah Transit Authority project manager Janelle Robertson told lawmakers at a Sept. 18 interim session in St. George. “That's kind of creating a natural demand for FrontRunner ridership growth.”

Adding to that equation is UDOT’s proposal to expand I-15. While some say Utah can’t just build its way out of traffic congestion, the agency maintains that a “holistic approach” that includes rail and road expansion is the right path forward for the region.

And some lawmakers agree with that assessment.

"On its best day front FrontRunner's going to handle maybe 5% of the commute right now,” State Sen. Todd Weiler told KUER in a July interview. Weiler’s district encompasses some of the most traffic-plagued parts of I-15 between Salt Lake City and Farmington.

“Now, when we get double tracking, you know, maybe that doubles to 10 or even triples to 15% of the commute,” he said. “But I think we can't stick our head in the sand and pretend like in the future everyone's going to take public transit and no one's going to drive."

The Biden administration set aside $316 million for the project earlier this year. Currently, about $370 million of the total would come from Utah coffers, and the state is applying for other federal grants to help pay for the remaining costs.

Lawmakers also expressed a desire for the project to be forward-looking when it comes to new rail car and track technology.

“Newer vehicles are considerably lighter, more efficient, cleaner and can go a lot faster on that rail system,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, who has announced he will be resigning from the legislature on Oct. 15. “The rail system as it was built, antiquatedly, a while ago, never anticipated any of these rail cars going over about 65 miles an hour, 70 miles an hour on the high end, even though the rail cars themselves could easily do over 100.”

According to UTA and UDOT, 10 new trains are part of the project’s budget. UTA also presented plans for future low-emission trains and curve improvements as future phases of FrontRunner’s growth in the coming years.

The double track plan could be finalized as early as 2024 with expanded service fully running by 2029.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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