Light Rail in Denver and Salt Lake City

September 5, 2010

I recently spent some time in both Denver and Salt Lake City, both places that have many examples of urban planning successes and failures that serve as great learning experiences.  Denver’s 16th Street Mall and Salt Lake’s “The Gateway” and City Creek Center developments represent large downtown projects worthy of serious study.  One thing that all three of these developments have in common is the fact that they are served by light rail that runs on city streets.  Both light rail systems are also very similar to ours in St. Louis (we use Siemens SD-400 and SD-460, while Denver and Salt Lake both use the SD-100 and SD-160).  The main difference between St. Louis’ Metrolink and TheRide in Denver/UTA Trax in Salt Lake City is the height of the platforms and the lack of a dedicated right of way (at least in the center city).  Because the platforms are basically just the sidewalks in Denver or sidewalk-like medians in Salt Lake, entering the train requires walking up steps (like getting onto the bus).  To accommodate people with disabilities or parents with strollers, etc.,  both systems have ramps leading up to elevated platforms at the front of each train.

18th and California Station - Denver, Colorado

The elevated section of the platform can be seen towards the back of the above photo.  Below is a picture of a UTA Trax Train approaching a platform, with the accessible section towards the lower right of the photo.

UTA Trax Train in Downtown Salt Lake City

A view from the platform itself provides a better idea of how this raised section really works.

UTA Trax Accessible Train Entry

Seeing this system firsthand was a really good experience for me, because it served as confirmation that a new  Metrolink lines could run right down the middle (or edges) of our excessively wide avenues in St. Louis.  In particular, the new North-South line could run through downtown on Tucker (12th Street) and extend South along Gravois (which Tucker turns into) and North along N. Florissant (which Tucker also turns into).  On the North side, the line could make a Westward turn onto Natural Bridge from N. Florissant to provide a more central route.  Because Tucker is currently being torn up and replaced just North of Downtown, this would be a great place (and time) to begin the project.  The route could connect to the existing Metrolink line with a Viaduct stop similar to the Grand Station, or riders could simply walk the two blocks to 14th street or the 4 blocks to 8th street to change lines.  Maybe it could be the Green Line!

Possible Future Metrolink Map?

I know this idea is not by any means new, and a similar route is what most of us have been hoping we’ll get in the near future (particularly since the passage of Prop A), but I really think that this line on existing city streets would be most affordable, and would have the potential to do the most good.  Extending Metrolink along Highway 55 is silly to me, because the areas around the highway are not pedestrian friendly.  Gravois could really use some pedestrian activity to activate businesses that already exist and create a demand for more businesses along this street which essentially serves as a high speed thruway.   The addition of light rail to this corridor will also reduce the auto traffic.

On the North side this line would serve as a much needed catalyst to spur development along the largely abandoned shoulders of N. Florissant (many of which are clean slates for new construction) and would also connect the steadily improving Old North St. Louis neighborhood with Downtown.  Although Buses will remain the centerpiece of our regional transportation system, expanding our light rail increases the visibility of transit, the likelihood that it will be used, and that the neighborhoods it serves will be explored.


  1. I absolutely agree with you about Gravois/Florissant. Both corridors are excessively wide and could use the injection of redevelopment that a streetcar or light rail system would bring. Furthermore, as diagonals, both Gravois and Florissant cut through a cross-section of neighborhoods. That line could be an infrastructural armature for incredible redevelopment.

    Last year I thought through potential expansions in reaction to the Loop streetcar proposal: http://exquisitestruggle.blogspot.com/2009/07/streetcar-urbanism-in-st-louis-propsal.html

    • I love seeing maps of what transit in St. Louis could look like and yours is great. Unfortunately, the Loop streetcar is a little bit of a sore spot for me because I am not confident that those vital changes to the existing proposal (like your re-routing of Westward travel over to Vernon or the use of modern trains rather than historic looking trolleys) will happen. In it’s current form, the plan does little more than connect Blueberry Hill to the Pagent and 2 consecutive Metrolink stops to each other. Anyway, I shouldn’t complain and really support any additional transit anyone is willing to bring into the city.

  2. I would be cautious about street grade lightrail through a congested downtown area after my experience in downtown Baltimore. There, the light rail takes fifteen-twenty minutes to go 10 blocks–not because of traffic or heavy ridership, but because it has to stop twice at each intersection because of red lights (for streets that have no traffic) and to let on passengers. I’m not saying it would be a bad idea to go down Tucker (in fact, it IS the most logical route), but we should learn from the mistakes of Baltimore.

    • Interesting. I haven’t seen Baltimore’s light rail system but did witness Denver’s and Salt Lake’s cruising right through downtown. I think that if stop lights are well timed and the planning is done properly these problems could be avoided but they are important to take into consideration. Thank you for the input!

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