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LIGHT-RAIL WRANGLING

Voters no doubt have heard the phrase "light rail," but the issue on the Salt Lake County ballot in November seems to have gotten lost in the plethora of other political wrangles.

In addition, two recent Dan Jones & Associates polls indicate there is some confusion about what the light-rail package is about.The first survey asked if people favored a quarter-cent sales tax increase for a light-rail system. The majority of those polled said no.

The second survey asked if people would favor the tax increase if it meant light rail, improvements for I-15 and more bus service. This time, the majority said yes - although by a fairly slim margin with 53 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed.

It's not surprising people are a bit confused when they hear conflicting information from light-rail opponents and proponents. Some critics have gone so far as to say the Utah Transit Authority already has secretly bought rail cars and is hiding them someplace. Meanwhile, light-rail proponents have been using 1987 cost figures, which strikes some as an attempt to make the price look lower than it actually would be.

Here's a refresher as to what the project entails:

The estimated $290 million rail/bus proposal is intended to authorize UTA to construct and operate a 15-mile light-rail system primarily along the I-15 and Union Pacific corridors extending from Sandy to downtown Salt Lake City. "Light rail" refers not to actual weight, but to the flexibility of the system, which can utilize or cross existing streets and share streets with cars and pedestrians. "Heavy rail" is typified by the subway systems in New York City and San Francisco.

UTA also would expand its bus fleet from 250 to 470 buses and create a system of hubs to link people with the rail line and to expand overall bus service.

The sales tax money also would be used for improvements for I-15, such as upgraded interchanges with synchronized lights.

The Utah Department of Transportation has long-term plans to add two lanes to I-15 in each direction from Sandy to the northern part of Salt Lake City. But the scope of that project is so large it would vastly exceed the money generated by the quarter-cent sales tax increase. Estimates are the new lanes on I-15 and reconstructed interchanges would cost about $500 million.

Federal funds of $131 million are available.

Officials expect the additional sales tax would generate between $15 million and $20 million in annual revenue, with 25 percent of that going to UDOT for I-15.

Figures updated last week indicate estimated operating costs in the year 1999 would be $6 million for the light-rail system in Salt Lake County and $61 million for the bus system through the whole region it serves, according to Bill Barnes, UTA spokesman.

Fare revenues are projected to cover 50 percent of operating costs for the light rail system and more than 20 percent of bus system operating expenses. Barnes said that would mean, systemwide, farebox revenue would pay 25 percent to 27 percent of operating costs for the whole transit system.

However, Randall Doyle of Area Leaders for Responsible Transportation doesn't just buy those figures.

He is convinced the proposed system will cost vastly more than predicted and that more tax increases would be imposed. Doyle thinks the area can get better and cheaper service by solving traffic problems in a different way.

Approaches that he favors include employing many express buses, improving traffic flow on I-15, adding many more car and van pools, creating one-way streets leading in and out of Salt Lake City at peak traffic times and making better use of east-west and north-south major arterial streets.

"None of this is a cure-all, but if we take many of these alternatives and put their impacts together, it would be multiple of what the light rail would do and for equal or much less cost," Doyle said.

Light-rail proponents would agree with at least one part of Doyle's contention - that a multitude of approaches will be needed in the future to move lots of people. They, too, favor a comprehensive transportation system - but with light rail as part of it.

Light rail has met with mixed success in other parts of North America. Although no place is trouble-free, things are going well for light rail in:

- Portland, where voters recently gave a hearty go-ahead for an extension to the MAX system while at the same time upholding a Proposition 13-type lid on property taxes.

- Calgary, a city of about 750,000, where the system carries more than 114,000 riders daily.

- San Diego, where the fare revenue pays 77 percent ($14.5 million) of this year's $18.9 million operating budget. (In non-recession years, the farebox has paid as much as 94 percent.)

But there's plenty of controversy surrounding systems or proposed systems in:

- Phoenix, where voters rejected a half-cent sales tax increase that would have paid $8.4 million to build a 103-mile light rail line, add 1,200 more buses, a commuter rail line, bus lanes on freeways and other freeway im-prove-ments.

- St. Louis, where the Metro Link light rail system budget has grown more than $100 million since it was originally proposed in 1986 because of unexpected costs.