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The Utah Transit Authority won the first unexpected gold of the 2002 Winter Olympics Wednesday: a federal agreement to pay a whopping $241 million to help build a 15-mile light-rail system from Sandy to downtown Salt Lake City.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena announced the deal, saying it is part of the federal government's commitment to help ensure a smooth Olympics.Congress still must appropriate money for the project.

"The Winter Olympics in Salt Lake are not just Salt Lake's Olympics. They are the nation's Olympics," Pena said while surrounded by Utah officials at a press conference.

The action may have also saved the light-rail project - which just last week had been declared dead by some in Congress unless local officials found a way to provide a much larger local share than the 80-20 federal-local split they had sought.

But the Clinton administration approved exactly that 80-20 split - with the federal government agreeing to pay $241 million through completion in 2000, and UTA paying $71 million.

Wednesday's announcement comes just a week after Pena gave $28 million to organizers of the 1996 Summer Games to improve light-rail and bus service in Atlanta.

The money still must be appropriated by Congress each year - but that is made much more likely, and near-automatic, with the agreement to include the money in the annual transportation budget submitted by the administration.

"That helps it leap-frog other projects," said Federal Transit Administrator Gordon Linton.

"What this means is we have passed the stringent review of the federal Department of Transportation," said UTA spokesman Bill Barnes, adding that the endorsement placed Utah's light-rail project among the top dozen or so vying for congressional favor.

Depending on whether Congress funds at least some portion of it in the coming fiscal year, work on the commuter rail system could begin as early as next fall.

The announcement hardly quelled persistent, if spotty, criticism of the project, however. Daniel L. Berman, a UTA board member who has been among a small minority on the board to oppose the project, repeated assertions that light rail is a waste.

"It'll have a very minimal impact on mass transit needs and cost a great deal of money," said Berman.

County Commissioner Brent Overson, perhaps the noisiest critic of the proposal, downplayed Pena's announcement, notingthe congressional obstacles ahead. Not every opponent had something to say. Rep. Enid Waldholtz, R-Utah, who favors spending money for more roads instead, and who as recently as last week said the federal government would never endorse light rail, was nowhere to be found Wednesday morning.

Gov. Mike Leavitt's office sounded a cautionary note. "There are a lot of hurdles left," said Leavitt spokeswoman Vicki Va-re-la, who repeated the governor's conditions for favoring the project: that ridership projections be solid, that it not involve a tax increase, that federal dollars cover most of the costs and that it be part of a larger strategy to untangle the fast-growing Wasatch Front's traffic snarls.

With the new agreement, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, planned to ask Wednesday afternoon for money to begin construction on the system in 1996. He did not want to say how much he would seek - but aides said it would be in the range of $14 million - and Bennett said he was confident it would be approved.

Last week, the House failed to include any money at all for light rail in its version of the 1996 Transportation Appropriations Act.

Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, said, "Obtaining funding is going to be difficult, but so was obtaining the full-funding agreement."

"It's good news," said Bob Kerrington, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, which includes in its ownership about 3,000 business and property owners from central Salt Lake City in its membership.

"It's an essential part of a transportation system," Ker-ring-ton said.

Kerrington, however, voiced concerns that are probably only the beginning of questions about the when and where of light rail.

Interviewed late Tuesday, he had just emerged from a meeting of downtown interests worried about how the project might affect commerce on Main Street. The alliance earlier this summer commissioned a study to explore whether Main Street should be widened for light rail, whether UTA buses will have to be rerouted for traffic and how parking space lost to the project would be replaced.

"There are a lot of kind of domino effects," Kerrington said.

UTA Board of Directors President Steven Randall said the money is only for the light-rail project. Some past proposals sought to mix with it funding to improve and widen I-15.

Randall said he expects about 13,000 riders a day at the start-up of the system, and that it should increase eventually to 27,000 a day by 2010.

He expects high ridership during the Olympics, since the system with 17 stations and 21 transit cars would pass near the media center, hockey and skating venues, hotels, shopping malls and the medal ceremony plaza.

Randall said no new taxes would be needed to build or operate the system as now envisioned.

Pena said the Salt Lake area would still have received the full-funding agreement for the project even if it had not received the Olympics, but maybe not quite as quickly.

"Regardless of the Olympics, this is a good project," Pena said. "It has received a high level of scrutiny. . . . It will serve the community well before and long after the Olympics."

A beaming Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini thanked the administration and said the agreement signifies "a working partnership for progress and mobility in our region."

She and Olympics organizers also were scheduled to meet with Vice President Al Gore Wednesday afternoon to discuss other federal involvement in the Olympics.

UTA - which for some time has anticipated the federal government would pick up most of the project costs - in 1993 bought up most of the right of way required for the line, a freight-rail track that runs from the Point of the Mountain into downtown Salt Lake City.

And the agency, whose sole current purpose is providing bus service to urban Utah, this summer began soliciting bids for the project's design, a phase that already has been funded by Washington and is expected to be finished within a year to 18 months.

The rail line would be powered by overhead electrical wires, serving 12 stops in suburban Salt Lake and five in the downtown area. Its cars would be similar to those used by Denver's light-rail system, holding up to 150 people in what Barnes said would be a "reasonable standing load," though they would be rated for up to 200 passengers.


Additional Information

Light-rail prospects excite Olympic officials

Olympic organizers are excited that light-rail trains may be running along the Wasatch Front in time for the 2002 Winter Games, but they aren't taking credit for securing federal funds.

"It's good for the city more than it's good for the Games. The Games are here only 16 days," Mike Korologos, spokesman for the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, said.

The effect of the Winter Games on the Wasatch Front's already strained transportation system has always been downplayed by Olympic boosters. They've suggested traffic will be less congested than when Brigham Young University plays the University of Utah.

Korologos said the new mass transportation system will be used by the estimated 1.5 million visitors expected during the Winter Games, who will be required to use public transportation to get to Olympic venues.

Tickets for Olympic events in Utah are expected to include a charge for public transportation. In Atlanta, each ticket includes a $2.50 surcharge to help defray transportation costs.

Athletes and Olympic officials will ride special buses and other vehicles directly to events, Korologos said. Area drivers will be asked to keep traffic lanes free for those special vehicles.