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On The Fast Track

Utah has transportation and data systems that make business move

By Heather Stewart

From a bird’s-eye view, it’s possible to see the transportation networks that make Utah the “Crossroads of the West.” The asphalt ribbon of Interstate 15 that connects Southern California with the Canadian border also runs the entire length of the State, while Interstate 80 traverses Utah in its transcontinental path that joins the East and West coasts.

The intersection of these two highways — in the heart of Salt Lake City — has developed into a major transportation focal point. Union Pacific Railroad maintains an intermodal hub in Salt Lake City and from there radiates a network of railroads throughout the western United States. The bustling Salt Lake International Airport is 10 minutes from downtown and is accessible by highway and rail, thanks to a new passenger light-rail line into the city center.

Utah also has a robust network for transmitting data — a broadband network that earned the State a No. 9 ranking among all states and was named fastest in the west according to the TechNet 2012 State Broadband Index. This robust statewide fiber optics infrastructure is an essential component in Utah’s renowned business environment.

A Closer Look

Most of Utah’s population is centered along the Wasatch Front: a narrow, 120-mile corridor along the base of the Wasatch Mountains. I-15 connects all of the metropolitan areas in this corridor, from Ogden City and nearby Hill Air Force Base to the Orem/Provo area. I-80 and belt route I-215 provide east-west connectivity across the Salt Lake Valley.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is adeptly handling growth in the region with several major expansion projects. At the end of 2012, the department completed a multibillion-dollar expansion of I-15 in Utah County that rebuilt 24 miles of freeway, widening it by two lanes in each direction and extending the Express Lane.

Several other interstates and highways join rural areas with the Wasatch Front and with both coasts. For example, I-70 originates in central Utah and travels into Denver and then on to the East Coast.

These roadways, totaling more than 43,000 miles, facilitate national and international business. Several companies have major distribution facilities in Utah to take advantage of the transportation infrastructure — companies like Litehouse Foods, Family Dollar, the Hershey Company and Sephora USA.

Given that Utah is the second-fastest growing state in the nation, the State is collaborating with long-term planning organizations such as Envision Utah and the Wasatch Front Regional Council to identify best practices for embracing growth and anticipating its challenges. Recently, the Governor’s Economic Council, a public-private partnership that helps coordinate statewide economic development activities, approved the Utah Department of Transportation’s “Unified Transportation Plan,” which uses a shared modeling approach to identify timelines and better map a holistic, multi-jurisdictional statewide plan.

Rail is another component that works alongside the freeway system to make doing business easy. While Union Pacific is the largest railroad company in Utah, several short-line rail companies link with Union Pacific to provide a network of service across the state.

Union Pacific accounts for 1,250 miles of track in Utah. In 2011, nearly 303,000 Union Pacific rail cars originated in the state, while 150,000 rail cars terminated in Utah. The state is a major hub for Union Pacific, which is the only railroad that serves all six gateways to Mexico. It also has a line up to Canada and links with several major East Coast railroads.

“We account for 65 percent of the freight coming out of Mexico, and 40 percent of our business is international,” says Dan Harbeke, public affairs director for Union Pacific. The railroad directly serves the western two-thirds of the United States.

In Utah, Union Pacific directly serves many businesses, says Harbeke, and connects with several short-line railroads to serve many more. In 2006, the company built a new intermodal hub in Salt Lake City that is capable of handling more than 250,000 annual container lifts. This facility further strengthened the distribution infrastructure in Utah. In fact, long-haul trucking companies like C.R. England moved some operations closer to the hub in order to streamline their interactions with the railroad.

On the Move

Distribution is only part of Utah’s rail story. Over the years, the State has invested in an ever-expanding passenger light-rail system, along with a new commuter rail line.

The TRAX light-rail system includes three lines that together service downtown Salt Lake City, the University of Utah, and suburbs south and west of the city. A new airport extension recently opened and two miles of streetcar construction will soon link Utah’s popular Sugarhouse neighborhood to the main TRAX system. By year’s end, there will be nearly 136 miles of operational light rail along the Wasatch Front.

Each day, TRAX carries 150,000 passengers, according to Gerry Carpenter, spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). In fact, UTA transports a third of the commuters to the U every day and 20 percent of the commuters to the downtown central business district.

The FrontRunner commuter rail line links the major metropolitan areas along the Wasatch Front with a diesel locomotive system that can travel up to 79 miles an hour. Currently, FrontRunner travels 89 miles from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south, with Salt Lake between those two points. Eventually FrontRunner will be extended in both directions for a total of about 120 miles.

“A good mass transit system is critical because it helps relieve some of the congestion that would otherwise be on the highways,” says Carpenter.

With a six-county service area, “UTA has one of the largest geographic areas of any public transit agency in the country,” he says. Even with this large scope, the agency and the State of Utah — and its forward-looking residents — have created a remarkably substantial mass transit system. Salt Lake City compares favorably to cities of similar population, size, commute times and median income level. For instance, Oklahoma City’s mass transit system carries one-sixth of the load share of Salt Lake, says Carpenter, while Memphis carries one-third.

For many companies, this strong mass transit system is a key component in their site selection process. Adobe Systems constructed its new Utah facility adjacent to the FrontRunner line in order to take advantage of the workforce talent in both Salt Lake and Utah counties.

As the population of the Wasatch Front grows, developers and state leaders are working to pair new residential development with existing and future transit stations. Several examples of this “transit-oriented” development are popping up along the transit system, including the premier City Creek community in downtown Salt Lake, a new eBay campus in Draper, Fireclay in Murray City and Station Park in Farmington.

The Daybreak development is located in the southwestern area of the Salt Lake Valley. This suburban transit-oriented development was launched in anticipation of a proposed TRAX line, says Carpenter, and with the TRAX line to Daybreak it has become a bustling community with more development coming down the line.

“If you ride TRAX out to 4800 West, there’s lots of residential housing. But then as TRAX curves to the south, it’s still largely undeveloped land owned by Kennecott Land. You will notice that there’s a TRAX station right in the middle of that area — there are crossings already in place, there are utilities already in place that were installed in anticipation of the development that will occur over the next few years,” he says.

With well-used commuter and light rail systems, along with an extensive bus system, Utah’s mass transit system is already exceptionally strong. But even more development is on the horizon.

“By the end of 2013, we will have 75 percent of the population of the Wasatch Front within three miles of a major transit stop. By 2030, our goal is to have 90 percent of the population within one mile of a major transit stop,” says Carpenter. “Our goal is to truly make public transportation competitive with the automobile.”

The (Under) Ground Level

Utah’s roads, rails and airlines keep local businesses connected to the nation and the world. But another aspect of the state’s robust infrastructure — broadband access — also keeps people and companies connected across the globe.

The State of Utah has long fostered extensive broadband connectivity, including in sparsely populated rural areas. Utah ranked No. 4 in the nation for internet speed in Akamai Technologies’ most recent “State of the Internet” report.

“We’re fastest in the West,” says Tara Thue, project manager for the Utah Broadband Project. She notes that Utah outranked both California and Washington, “which is really impressive when you consider the amount of rural areas that we have.”

Additionally, Utah ranks No. 1 in the nation for home broadband internet adoption, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“In terms of broadband deployment and availability, Utah has been really ahead of the curve,” says Thue.

The Utah Broadband Project is developing a statewide map of available broadband services, along with a plan for increasing broadband deployment in Utah.

“It’s incredibly important to have a really robust, redundant and reliable broadband infrastructure because without it, we wouldn’t be able to attract the kind of companies that we’re attracting,” says Thue.

“Broadband is so important for a number of things that a lot of people don’t think about. Education is becoming increasingly reliant on technology-enabled services. The way we deliver healthcare is changing with the emergence of ‘telehealth,’ where somebody in a rural area is able to see a specialist over a broadband connection,” she adds.

Utah’s existing broadband infrastructure has enabled tech companies like Adobe and eBay to set up operations in the State. It also laid the groundwork for the National Security Agency to begin construction of a massive data center in Utah.

Several factors have helped spread broadband into rural areas of the State. Preparing for the transportation needs of the 2002 Olympics, UDOT also installed a communications conduit system with extra capacity for future use. They have kept up this practice with many of their road construction projects since the Olympics. “This saves the State a ton of money as compared to going back in when somebody wants to put in a line or upgrade lines, because they don’t have to dig up the road again. It’s known as a ‘dig once’ policy,” says Thue.

The Utah Education Network (UEN) has also enabled a high level of connectivity in Utah. The UEN infrastructure provides high-speed internet services to schools and libraries. Thus, the UEN serves as an anchor institution in many rural areas.

“They work with private providers in rural and urban areas to provide connectivity to the school. So they might provide a gigabit Ethernet to the school, and the provider is able to serve the surrounding community as well,” says Thue. “Without that school or anchor institution, providers wouldn’t be able to economically justify going into areas that are so difficult or expensive to serve.”

“When companies are looking to locate in Utah, they can look outside of Salt Lake and Utah counties at our 27 other counties and find the same level of broadband services,” she says.

Utah has earned its reputation as the Crossroads of the West. Whether it’s roadways, rail, mass transit, air or even lines buried deep, Utah has the transportation backbone to support a brawny business community and a growing population.