Public desire for mass transit in Salt Lake City sought to relieve some of the traffic on roads throughout the city, and popular demand has resurfaced every few years as a response to air and road conditions.
In 1970 the Utah Transit Authority, or UTA, was organized on the heels of a vote to form a special public transit district in Salt Lake County. Casting their ballots for the new district, residents of Salt Lake, Sandy, Murray, Midvale, and Bingham hoped to ease the pressure on roads caused by America’s ongoing craze for the automobile. But what they were voting for wasn’t really anything new. Mass transit had already been a part of life for many Utahns at least since the early 1900s, when tracks for the state’s first streetcar and interurban railroad systems were laid down.
The first streetcars to appear in Utah were pulled by mules, though it didn’t take long for electricity to replace “hoof power.” Then came the interurban electric railroads. By the 1920s, four different electric railways connected Salt Lake with places like Logan, Ogden, Brigham City, Provo, Payson, and the Saltair Resort perched on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. A spike in population along the Wasatch Front seemed to make the rail lines indispensable. The increasing popularity of automobile travel, however, slowly undermined the electric railroads, and one by one they disappeared. The last one stopped passenger service in the 1960s.
Fast forward to 1970, and the formation of the UTA. Mass transit was back, though now busses replaced trolley cars and electric railways. But even the electrical model ended up being resurrected with the building of the TRAX light rail system. As the population along the Wasatch Front continues to grow and air pollution remains a problem, is it possible we’ll return to the past looking for inspiration for solving current-day problems? Maybe one day, electrical railroads will once again run from Logan to Payson—or even beyond.
Image: Utah Light and Railway Horsecar, January 2, 1918. Image shows two horses pulling a trolley car along a Salt Lake City street. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
See Don Strack’s entry on railroads in the online Utah History Encyclopedia. Also see Thomas G. Alexander, Utah: The Right Place 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2003), 282; and Marti Money, “Trax: Rebirth of the Rails” Currents (Spring 2003).