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What voters want to know

Salt Lake County's proposed light-rail transportation system has spawned many queries, including:Question: Why create it?

Answer: Proponents say a light-rail system could ease air pollution, conserve energy, cut travel time and move hundreds of people quickly and efficiently. Also, one light-rail train operator can handle four cars carrying 150 people in each car, for a total of 600 passengers. It would take 10-12 buses with an equal number of drivers to handle the same load.

Bus service would be increased to include Sundays, holidays, more night hours and 10-minute interval service along busy routes. There also would be better east-west bus service and more service in the southern and western parts of the valley.

Question: Why not create it?

Answer: Opponents doubt the proposed scenario and suggest benefits are exaggerated. Among other things, they contend few people would ride light rail and it would do little to improve air quality or lessen traffic congestion.

Opponents also say there hasn't been enough investigation into alternatives, such as more park-and-ride lots, more carpooling, high occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV) on highways or a monorail system. They question a UTA consultant's assertion that I-15 doesn't have sufficient lengths of roadway to make HOV lanes work or that a monorail would cost three to five times as much as light rail.

Question: What could go wrong?

Answer: Experience in other cities has shown plenty of unexpected problems can crop up. For example, San Jose, which runs a successful light-rail system, had to exercise sensitivity and handle delays when workers discovered asbestos deposits and an Indian burial ground along a route. Also, some homeowners unhappy with the alignment got a court injunction that caused a 24-month delay while the entire environmental study process was redone. Additionally, transit planners opted for some improvements such as nicer bus shelters and rail cars with better brakes.

The cost jumped from $372 million to $545 million.

Transit representatives in recession-ravaged areas all say that unemployment directly affects light-rail ridership. The fewer jobs people have to go to, the fewer riders on the trains. That means farebox revenues go down and the system might need more government subsidy or fare increases, both of which cost consumers more.

In St. Louis, costs skyrocketed for the light-rail system for many reasons, including a weak dollar that raised the price of foreign-built trains. The system also had unexpected costs as a result of new earthquake standards and hazardous-waste cleanup along the rail route.

Question: How long before a system would be on line?

Answer: If the referendum passed, expanded bus service would start in January 1993, with more vehicles and routes phased in over time. The light-rail system also would be phased in, but would be expected to be operational in 1997-98.

Question: What will the ballot say?

The wording is still being drafted and should be ready next week, according to Jim Braden, who handles media relations for the Salt Lake County Commission. He said commissioners have talked to proponents and opponents to make sure the language doesn't favor one side or the other.

Question: How much has already been spent?

Answer: UTA has spent $7 million of $20 million in federal funds allocated for the project. The money is intended for and has already been spent or is committed for advance right-of-way acquisitions, engineering work and other studies.

Question: What if the referendum fails?

Answer: Federal money already is in place to finance engineering studies, which will continue whether or not the proposal is approved by voters this year. Light-rail proponents might want to resurrect the idea in the future.