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UTA GIVES LIGHT RAIL CONDITIONAL BLESSING

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Work on the final design and possible construction of a light-rail system linking Sandy with downtown Salt Lake will proceed as long as it doesn't mean an increase in sales taxes, the UTA board said Wednesday.

With three dissenting votes from Salt Lake County members of the panel, board members approved a resolution "reaffirming its support" for a $200 million light-rail system.After getting three new board members last October, UTA board members decided to study the light-rail option in a handful of educational sessions and then take a formal position. The vote is a follow-up to one taken in 1990, when the UTA board endorsed a plan for an I-15 expansion and light rail.

"It is time to stand up and take a leadership role," said board chairman Steven Randall as he called for the vote.

Before Wednesday's vote, Gov. Mike Leavitt weighed in on the side of the plan with a written statement delivered by a top Utah Department of Transportation official. The governor said he supported light rail as long as there were three stipulations, and he pointed out that light rail isn't a solution by itself for traffic congestion and air-quality improvement in Utah's urban heart.

Leavitt's stipulations were that no additional sales-tax revenues be used on the system, that ridership will be adequate to sustain the system and that federal funds pay a significant share of design and construction costs.

In their official resolution, board members echoed some of those sentiments along with emphasizing that bus service outside of the county would not suffer as a result of light-rail construction. The board will also require at least 50 percent of its funding from federal sources and that UTA's share of the cost to build the system wouldn't exceed 25 percent of the total bill.

Before voting, board members then each took their turn to praise or deride the light-rail plan. The three dissenters - Dan Berman, Bonnie Hernandez and Sam Taylor - questioned the viability and expense of the plan.

"Light rail is one of the most expensive public projects in the state's history with at best marginal public transit benefits," said Berman, a local attorney.

He said UTA runs a high risk of not being able to finish construction and operate the light-rail system without a sales-tax increase.

Hernandez questioned the plan because she said land-use planning isn't prepared for the impact that transit stations will have local communities. The rush to build the system is being driven by government officials and not by the people, where government should derive its power, Hernandez said.

She also was skeptical of the what others called the safeguards built into the resolution, noting that she believes three of the four stipulations cannot be determined until after a system is built.

Ten other members disagreed, saying they believed financial analysts' predictions about the project and that after weighing all of the arguments light rail made the most sense.

"I don't believe the numbers are bogus," Randall said.

Orrin Colby, a Salt Lake County member of the board, said he had heard a variety of concerns about the future of the I-15 corridor, including comments from small-business people who are worried about how increased traffic could restrict flow of goods and services along the Wasatch Front.

Pharis Blackhurst, a board member from Utah County, said that concerns over safety and pollution swayed his vote in favor. "We have not come up with any better solution," he said.

James E. Clark, a board member from Bountiful, said he believes starting the system in Salt Lake County would could eventually bring an extension to Davis County. Even if the board did nothing, changes would be forced upon the area by federal environmental regulators.