October 06, 2015

Salt Lake City: Leading from the Front

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Utah Transit Agency (UTA) has a track record of delivering transit projects ahead of schedule and under budget. Michael Allegra, UTA's recently-retired president and CEO, reveals the secrets of UTA's success and its future ambitions in an exclusive interview with Kevin Smith.

IN the United States today it is possible to eat a meal in a restaurant, watch a movie at the cinema, do your banking, buy groceries and even pick up a prescription without leaving the comfort of your car.

In a "drive-thru nation," convincing people to desert their beloved vehicles and use transit is a challenge for transport authorities and agencies across the country, even as congestion engulfs some cities.

Utah Transit Agency's (UTA) recent work and success in implementing new projects in the 193km Wasatch Front region centred on Salt Lake City is therefore a case that many other American cities and metropolitan regions would do well to emulate.

Wasatch is home to 80% of Utah's 2.2 million residents and is one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. To meet current and future mobility demand, the agency undertook an ambitious 112.7km expansion of its existing 103km rail network in the form of four light rail projects, a commuter line extension and a new tram line in its Frontlines 2015 construction programme which ran between 2008 and 2013.

UTAThe programme was delivered for $US 2.5bn, $US 300m under budget, and two years early, and the new lines are proving extremely popular with users: the authority currently has a 74% favourable impression among its passengers with 80% stating they are happy with the direction public transit is heading. UTA was also named the Outstanding Public Transportation Authority for 2014 by the American Public Transportation Association (Apta) following record ridership of 45 million across its trains, trams and buses during the year.

Mr Michael Allegra, UTA's recently-retired president and CEO, who will remain at the agency as a senior advisor to board chairman Mr H David Burton until March 2016, put UTA's success down to good business practices, good management and good governance.

"The key was a fantastic board and a relationship of partnering with local government," Allegra told IRJ. "We ran through 45 different cities and we had to get 45 city councils and planning commissions all to agree.

"We signed an inter-local agreement at the very beginning explaining the trade-offs between getting what you want and slowing down the process. We then spent an extraordinary amount of time explaining the process, educating and informing and agreeing with local governments about roles and expectations, about what they want, what they would contribute and what we would contribute. That helped immeasurably when we got to construction."

Business-like

Allegra says that UTA and its contractors were able to beat deadlines and come under-budget in all of the Frontlines projects by having the freedom to innovate and be "business-like" in their approach.

This included adopting a pure alliance approach to construction, a concept popular in Australia whereby all parties share the project's benefits and the risks. Allegra says that this helped each party to work towards the same goals throughout the process.

"Obviously when you get into the construction phase you find things which are unexpected," he says. "In this model our contractors would just say 'I have other work elsewhere, you go and fix this problem and I will go and work somewhere else.' They did that instantaneously on the spot and just kept working. At the end of the day it benefited them: they finished early, they got paid, and it worked. We benefited in terms of securing a best-value project."

Like other US transit agencies, UTA has relied on public referenda to secure funding for its capital projects. The 2006 election provided the greenlight for the Frontlines programme, with the public agreeing to a 0.25 cent tax increase on every $US 1 spent, with all the money going towards transport projects. In a very conservative state, this was no mean feat and followed the failure of a similar proposal in 1992 to fund the first phase of the transit programme.

On that occasion UTA was able to complete the projects without the sales tax revenues thanks to several federal grants, and it was the success of this phase of construction which Allegra feels convinced the electorate to back the tax rise the second time round.

"We already had a rail system in play, they'd seen our past performance and that we were able to deliver every project ahead of schedule and under budget," Allegra says. "Those are the things that the public wants to know. They want to have the trust that you will do what you say and that it is going to work."

Allegra adds that offering a balanced transport system is not only vital to the future of the region but it is also reflected in the Salt Lake business community's response to the developments. He says that the city's chamber of commerce played a pivotal role by presenting transit as a selling point to some of the United States' largest companies which are now moving to the region.

"The business community stepped up, stood out, took the lead and said this is important to the return on investment to this community because it will make us competitive with not just the United States but the rest of the world," Allegra says. "Adobe moved to Salt Lake City and said I want to be on a rail line. eBay asked before their move 'where do you have space on one of your rail lines? How long does it take to get from the airport to this spot on a train?'"

UTA is returning to the voters again in November 2016 with a proposal for a further 0.25 cent tax increase on every $US 1 in sales, with 40% of the new revenue going directly to UTA, 40% to cities and 20% to counties. The aim is to fund capacity expansion on existing services by purchasing new rolling stock, which will include adding a sixth car to Frontrunner services.

While transit is not always the first choice for transport in the Wasatch Front - 94% of respondents to the satisfaction survey stated that they own a car - Allegra says the challenge now is to convince more and more people to leave their car at home more often by offering a higher frequency of service.

"We have a long range goal, that all UTA buses and trains are working together and will run at 15-minute intervals all day long," Allegra says. "If you can walk outside of your door, wait a couple of minutes and a bus or train turns up, and there are timed transfers for buses and trains so you can get off one and get on another, that will make transit the mode of choice."

Beyond this UTA is striving to realise the projects outlined in Utah's Unified Transporation Plan 2040, a proposed $US 19.5bn investment in new infrastructure, including up to $US 8.81bn in rail projects, which is split into three phases: 2011-2020, 2021-2030, and 2031-2040.

Allegra says that in addition to capacity enhancement, the focus is on installing further trams. A project to extend the existing service from McClleland Street into the centre of Sugarhouse is under development, with an application for a further Tiger federal grant imminent.

He also says that there is a push to develop better transport links to the region's ski resorts, including the possibility of developing a cog railway similar to those used in Switzerland. However, bus rapid transit has not been ruled out, and this may be the preferred option for many of the future transit projects in city centres.

"It's logistics," Allegra says. "We built this extensive rail network because in 2002 I went out and worked with the Union Pacific railroad and we bought [320km] of railway right of way, so we had all of this easy-to-convert corridor available to us. As we get into more urban areas we have got to blend in with the car, so BRT sometimes works better. Taking lanes away is hard sometimes. I know BRT does that but it has the ability to be versatile."

High-speed

High-speed rail is another long-term vision. Allegra describes the Inter-Mountain West region of Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas which are 400-800km apart as a perfect future application for high-speed.

The notion may appear fanciful given the difficulties with securing funding for projects considered a higher priority for the United States' high-speed rail programme. Indeed the issue has become a political football in recent years, most notably in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Nevertheless Allegra believes that there is an appetite for high-speed rail in the Inter-Mountain West and says its transit improvements have been designed with a future network in mind.

"It is a long-term goal, but now is the time to start considering it, and looking for opportunities," he says. "The funding comes when you have good projects."

While he recognises that states and cities have had to step up to fill the void left by recent Congress cutbacks, Allegra strongly believes that the federal government remains the key driver of infrastructure funding in the US. UTA is a major beneficiary of federal funding programmes with $US 1.7bn in grants secured for its projects in the past 10 years, including $US 500m for Frontlines 2015. Tiger grants have also been a major success. However, with the United States still lagging behind in required infrastructure investments, Allegra feels more must be done to convince Congress of its importance.

"I think the understanding that cities are creating the wealth of the country has to be amplified," he says. "As the cities do well, the states do well and the US does well. Investing in our cities is basic and fundamental."

Private finance is touted as a means to overcome these funding shortfalls, with high-speed projects in Texas immediately springing to mind, and public-private partnerships a popular solution elsewhere around the world. Allegra does see a role for private finance but as one of a portfolio of infrastructure project backers.

He highlights land use as a way of enticing private involvement, particularly in urban projects, because of the strong possibility for a return on investment. The Sugarhouse tram for example has generated $US 400m in private investments along the corridor since the completion of the $US 55m project.

Allegra says UTA's board is intent on developing a transit oriented real-estate development agenda in the future and is already working on housing and retail developments on its land in partnership with private parties.

"Like they do in Hong Kong, we believe we will get some money back from this and we will take that money and put it back into service," Allegra says. "If we can have a long-term sustainable operation and funding sources, some of it coming from our own developments, then everyone wins. If it requires a subsidy to provide a more efficient service, it is integrated within the individual cities, meaning that the city's tax base goes up. Again we all benefit."

This clear vision for a sustainable transport system is the next phase in the agency's evolution. UTA has come a long way in the last 10 years, and with its passengers now "clinging onto straps" the public is buying into the improved transit network on offer. The car might still be the mode of choice for many, but with a bold plan of improvements, and a history of delivering, UTA is primed to meet the needs of the Wasatch Front as it continues to grow and develop.

"It is all about providing an alternative to the single auto occupant," Allegra says. "I think that we're in a renaissance. This is the century of transit. The car has had its time. I think the trends are all in our favour, that public transit will become the mode of choice for future cities and future generations."

 

UTA's Frontlines 2015 projects

THE 8.2km, $US 370m West Valley project, which is now part of the Green Line Trax service from Salt Lake Central station to West Valley City, and the 17.1km $US 535m Mid Jordan extension, which formed the new Red Line Trax service from University of Utah to Daybreak, were the first Frontlines 2015 projects to get underway in 2008.

The east-west West Valley project added a four-station branch to the existing north-south Blue Line at Central Pointe, terminating at West Valley Central. The Mid Jordan line is a branch from the Blue Line at Fashion Place West and added 10 further stations, terminating at Daybreak Parkway. Both extensions opened on August 7 2011, a year ahead of schedule and 20% under budget.

Services on the 9.7km Airport Line from Arena in the city centre began on April 14 2013 following a $US 235m project, which commenced in October 2008. The Airport Trax service is an extension of the Green Line, serving six additional stations, and including a transfer to Frontrunner trains at North Temple.

The final Trax project to start was the Draper Line, a southern extension of the north-south Blue line, which follows an existing UTA right of way purchased from Union Pacific (UP) in 1992. Work on the $US 143m project, which came in $US 50m under budget and added three stations, began in 2010 and the line opened to passengers on August 18 2013, two years ahead of schedule.

UTA ordered 77 Siemens Avanto S70 LRVS for expanded Trax services in a $US 288m contract awarded in May 2008. S70s are also deployed on the Sugarhouse tram, a 3.2km single-track line which runs east from an interchange with the Red, Blue and Green lines at Central Pointe to South Salt Lake, Sugarmont, and Fairmont, and opened on December 7 2013. The $US 55m line was not included in the original Frontlines plan but was made possible through a $US 26m federal government Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (Tiger) grant.

The $US 850m Frontrunner project to extend the existing 71.2km commuter service from Ogden to Salt Lake Central by a further 72km to Provo was delivered two years early and 10% under budget. The service opened to the public on December 10 2012 and offers a journey time of less than two hours on the complete 143.2km route, with trains reaching a maximum speed of 127km/h. The line was built adjacent to an existing UP right-of-way, features 34 level crossings, and required the construction of 34 bridges.

UTA purchased a further 10 MP36PH-3C locomotives from MotivePower for the expanded service taking its total to 18 units. It also bought 10 more single-deck and eight double-deck coaches from Bombardier, which combined with existing stock, gave it a fleet of 51 coaches, including 38 double-deck vehicles.

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