OGDEN — Union Station and the surrounding railyards area may be reborn as the epicenter of economic and transportation vibrancy in the Ogden region, according to business, community and technology planners.
The impending 150th anniversary of the joining of the transcontinental railroad has drawn attention to what might be possible for economic development and expansion of freight rail and passenger transit.
“Our economy really does ride on the rails,” said Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Officials list several areas where the Ogden railyards sector may blossom in the decades ahead.
In some ways, the vision starts and ends with Union Station. The 160,000-square-foot depot at Historic 25th Street and Wall Avenue was built in 1924. It anchored Ogden when the city was one of the nation’s major rail hubs.
“There’s a reason that for a few decades Ogden had the highest number of per capita millionaires in America,” Hale said. “Ogden was a railroad town, with all the railroad industries and banks. A lot of wealth went through there.”
By planning to fully restore the 95-year-old depot, Ogden City hopes at the same time to galvanize development in the neighboring area.
“It’s very important that we preserve Union Station for the community benefit in the long term,” said Tom Christopulos, the city’s economic development director.
“As a sole project, it will be very, very expensive, if it is done in the right way,” he said. “We have been slapping on patches for decades. We need to get it back up and fully restored, but we haven’t quite figured out how yet.”
UNION STATION PROJECT AREA
A large sector of underdeveloped Ogden is seen as the canvas for what in its early stages is being called the Union Station project area. It is bordered by Lincoln Avenue on the east, 20th and about 26th streets to the north and south, and west to the 20th Street Pond and the old landfill in West Ogden.
“That area in our outlook is underdeveloped as far as its potential for more intentional development, much the same as we have done in the central city,” Christopulos said.
Planners are drafting a 20-year plan that in phases may see housing, office space, other business developments, and recreationally involved “greenspace” projects around the Weber River, much as has been done along the Ogden River.
With Business Depot Ogden approaching maturity in its development, Christopulos said it is vital that the city create another job anchor area “to try to make sure we have another place to generate more tax revenue.”
As planners focus on rebuilding the Union Station area, it won’t be “back to a strictly transit-oriented strategy,” he said. So housing, office and recreation projects all “are on the table.”
Christopulos said it’s a concept only at this point, but officials plan to engage the community over the next two years to refine initial ideas and commence work on phases.
If results are as envisioned, not only will the area grow, but the city may have more resources to renovate the centerpiece, Union Station.
UNION PACIFIC AND THE RAILROAD INDUSTRY
Union Pacific, corporate star of the 150th anniversary celebration to come May 9-11, may hold the key to how far the city’s plans can go. But the industrial juggernaut isn’t showing its cards.
The railroad owns the land beneath Union Station and a lot of the land in the envisioned project area.
“We can’t presume to know what their needs are,” Christopulos said. “We are trying to get them to be a partner, and we want to be their partner. We are not anywhere close to defining what it means yet.”
Absent significant action with Union Pacific, “We will start were we can, which is around the Union Station.”
Ogden officials gave Hale a tour of the proposed project area.
“If they’re able to secure that land and do the project they’re thinking of, it would be a huge deal for Ogden,” Hale said.
The rail area is in a federally designated opportunity zone, where investors can put capital gains to earn tax breaks.
“If those people keep their money in for 10 years, they don’t have to pay capital gains taxes,” Hale said. “If Ogden comes up for a really great plan for that area they can entice some of these investors.”
A Union Pacific executive declined to comment about the company’s plans for its operations in the Ogden area.
Kristen South, senior director of corporate communications, said she could not answer questions prior to publication because the company was in a securities “quiet period.”
According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, federal securities laws limit what information a company can release to the public during the time an earnings statement is under review.
Hale said Ogden eventually could see greater rail business via the Utah Inland Port Authority, under which a massive development is planned in the Salt Lake airport area.
The Legislature this year passed a bill to permit port “spokes” to be established in other communities. Hale said an Ogden port element would allow more goods to clear customs faster, leading to more rail shipments and traffic.
Seven railroads operate in Utah on 1,300 miles of track, Hale said.
Large freight railroads support 1.1 million jobs that generate $219.5 billion in economic output, $71.3 billion in wages and $25.9 billion in tax revenues, according to a 2017 Towson University study commissioned by the Association of American Railroads.
Commuter rail’s future is bright in Northern Utah, Hale said.
“We need to double the tracks on our FrontRunner system,” he said.
That would mean quicker intervals available at stations every half hour during peak times, he said.
Plus, with two tracks the trains could go a lot faster; they’re now limited to 80 mph.
“That would cut commute times a lot and make it more attractive for Ogdenites,” he said.
Hale lives in Orem and sometimes rides FrontRunner to work in Salt Lake City, “but it’s twice as long as the drive.”
Adding a track is “very feasible, but the cost will be significant,” Hale said. “At some point it may be worth investing in that.”
Speaking of faster commute times, consider hyperloop technology.
Utah is not in the hyperloop picture, but transit people and economic developers are intrigued by the concept of 16-passenger pods shooting through a tube at 700 mph via magnetic energy and vacuum pressure.
In the Nevada desert north of Las Vegas, the Hyperloop One company has built a working prototype.
Space and electric car entrepreneur Elon Musk also is working on hyperloop dreams with his Boring Co., envisioning a half-hour commute from New York to Washington in an underground tube.
An intercontinental loop train probably would be next.
You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.