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New sports district in Salt Lake City could mean burying this major downtown street

Ryan Smith and his Smith Entertainment Group's vision for the new downtown sports and entertainment district includes tall, gleaming buildings along a long promenade that leads directly to the front door of the Delta Center, home of the Jazz and Utah's new professional hockey team.

Missing from the nearly futuristic cityscape is 300 West, also known as John Stockton Drive. The six-lane state highway, which carries about 16,000 cars and trucks daily, appears to have sunk beneath the boardwalk in renderings presented at a city council meeting earlier this month.

Smith's group is at least considering putting the busy stretch of road between North Temple and 100 South underground and using the area above the tunnel to create the new pedestrian mall and entertainment district depicted in the neighborhood's rendering.

Smith's representatives have been keen to stress that these are preliminary proposals and not the final product. A spokesperson for SEG reiterated this point when asked for comment on the plans for 300 West.

But the idea of ​​dismantling the state road is more than just a fleeting idea, because earlier this month SEG planners collected data on the feasibility of the concept.

Robert Stewart, regional director of the Utah Department of Transportation for Salt Lake City, said in an interview that he was initially asked during the legislative session to provide a cost estimate for building a tunnel along 300 West – and to complete that forecast within a day or two.

“It's hundreds of millions,” he said. “I'd hate to put a one or two or three or four or five in front of it, but it's hundreds of millions.”

Recently, he said, a traffic engineer hired by Smith to prepare the district's traffic plan contacted him again to discuss the concept and find out what the Department of Transportation's requirements were for the road.

“I noticed that 300 West is a pretty important route for us,” he said.

He said it is one of the two main north-south arteries through downtown Salt Lake City, along with State Street, and “we cannot shift any more traffic onto State Street because it has already reached its capacity in the North Temple area.”

And since it's a state highway, it needs to be able to accommodate everything from motorcycles to box trucks to semi-trailers, he said.

Jon Larsen, Salt Lake City's transportation director, said if the state legislature is willing to fund the project, the city would be happy to help make it a reality.

“In general, we support anything that improves the human experience downtown, increases walkability, reduces barriers and makes it safe and convenient to get around downtown,” he said. “I think that's the main goal of tunneling 300 West, so that's something we're excited about and interested in.”

There are details that would need to be worked out – where the tunnel would dip and emerge, which TRAX line it would run under, and groundwater issues, to name a few.

“There are a lot of technical things that need to be worked out, but at the end of the day, if that means there's this beautiful, cohesive connection between the Delta Center and the cultural core of the district, that would be pretty cool,” Larsen said.

Soren Simonsen teaches urban planning at the University of Utah and is a board member of the Utah Chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism. He said there are examples of cities like Chicago and Washington DC using tunnels to control traffic and maintain a pedestrian-friendly city.

And there are more and more examples of cities moving highways underground or shutting them down in favor of more pedestrian-friendly routes.

In Boston, the Big Dig project rebuilt a 7.5-mile corridor of interstate highways, about half of which ran through tunnels. However, the program was plagued by cost overruns and engineering problems, ultimately making it the most expensive highway project in history at the time.

Other cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have also made large areas accessible again by placing highways underground.

“I certainly understand and sympathize with the idea of ​​reducing some of the traffic when you're trying to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and connect parts of downtown where major arteries like 300 West are a real barrier,” Simonsen said.

Salt Lake City has been working for years to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly, Simonsen says, but these plans conflict with the UDOT transportation authority, which focuses on car and truck traffic rather than encouraging pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

“Every large city has to deal with this, and there are both less expensive and more expensive options,” he said. “Of course, if the sky's the limit and you don't have budget constraints, you can move the heavy vehicles underground and eliminate that conflict.”

But when it comes to developing the west side of the city, the Rio Grande Plan's vision of moving the railroad tracks west of the city center underground to improve traffic flow and free up 30 hectares of developable land is a better proposal.

“For me, these have a much bigger impact,” he said. “If you want to invest that much money, that's where I would put it.”

Anna Harden

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