Light rail is so alive and well it's growing tentacles.
What originally was proposed as a 15-mile straight shot from suburban Sandy into downtown Salt Lake City is shaping up in the minds of some policymakers as a serpentine network with arms in every direction.The Sandy-Salt Lake line, which will be under construction by next year, was always touted as a pilot project, the seed that would breed offshoots.
But not until Thursday was the extent of the vision for the expansion of mass transit in urban Utah so publicly unveiled.
At a regular meeting of the Salt Lake County Council of Governments, planners from the five-county Wasatch Front Regional Council presented COG members with 10 "transit corridors" they are studying as potential candidates for either light-rail or highway lanes dedicated to buses and car poolers.
They include three so-called "anchor corridors" that have been previously publicized: A light-rail spur between downtown Salt Lake City and Salt Lake International Airport; a campus connection from downtown to the University of Utah; new I-15 lanes dedicated to high-occupancy vehicle traffic into Davis County.
Other corridors under study apparently are candidates for light-rail spurs. They are:
- A southbound line from the airport along Bangerter Highway into the suburban west side of the Salt Lake Valley.
- East from West Valley City to the light-rail main line along I-15.
- Northeast through West Jordan toward 7200 South and I-15.
- West-northwest along the Van Winkle Expressway and 4500 South through the Holladay-Murray area to I-15.
- Cross-valley east-west connections along 4500-4700 South between West Valley City, Murray and Holladay and along 9000-9400 South through Sandy and West Jordan/South Jordan.
The proposals, skeletal as they seemed, drew immediate criticism.
"I have a big mouth," said Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson as he began a critique questioning the prudence of putting more money into mass transit. Overson suggested the public might be better-served by more carpooling and more government encouragment of the practice.
"You're falling short," he told Doug Hattery and Joe Racosky, the regional council representatives offering Thursday's presentation.
Overson, long a light-rail opponent, said half of all commuters carpool, an assertion promptly challenged by Deeda Seed, a newly elected Salt Lake City councilwoman.
"I disagree," she said, hinting that studies show the number is much smaller. Indeed, UTA and the regional council in separate reports have said the actual proportion of commuters who share rides is less than 20 percent.
"(Mass transit) is not the solution to everything," allowed Racosky, though he said trends do not bode well for commuters still driving to work in 20 years. He said projections are that the Wasatch Front's population of about 1.5 million will increase by as much as 50 percent by 2015, that vehicle miles traveled will grow even faster but that road capacity is likely to increase by only 20 percent.
Hattery said the regional council's current study - which will cost about $750,000 and is aimed at determining which corridors are workable - is the first step in a long process.
Money is the big hurdle, he conceded. But planners will first offer options, collect public opinion and then make politically delicate recommendations.
It's a scenario that's not unique to Utah.
Major public transit expansions, said Hattery, are being vigorously explored - and in some cases adopted - elsewhere in the country's fastest-growing region.
"Virtually every similarly sized city in the West is either planning or building between 40 and 50 miles of these kind of corridors," he said.