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WASATCH FRONT CAN'T DRIVE ITS WAY OUT OF CONGESTION

To those who enjoy the current pace of traffic along Wasatch Front freeways, the word this week from the U.S. House of Representatives must have seemed like good news. The GOP's proposed budget resolution doesn't include the 80 percent federal share for light rail transit for which progressive Utahns had hoped.

But don't get carried away in celebration. Last year's budget resolution was equally stingy toward light rail, but the final version included it. In fact, the budget ended up with enough mass-transit funding nationwide to rival the largess of any previous Congress.Perspective is important here. The House's recommended budget is not the final word. The Senate will make its own recommendations, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, is planning to fight for light rail, as he did successfully last year.

This year, the Clinton administration also has recommended $35 million for the project. The important 80-20 split is by no means dead.

Still, progressive Utahns who favor smooth flowing traffic have reason for concern.

The project would be a much easier sell in Congress if Utah's 2nd District representative supported it enthusiastically. Yet, despite a consistent 60 percent support for light rail among Utahns in opinion polls, some of the candidates for that office say they oppose it. Perhaps they don't understand the significance of losing this important project.

Without a clean, mass-transit alternative to freeway congestion, the state likely won't receive any federal help in expanding I-15. That means Utah taxpayers will be stuck with the entire $1.09 billion price tag of adding lanes and reconfiguring ramps.

But the process is more complicated than merely raising taxes or setting up toll booths. Expansion plans for I-15 were drawn with light rail in mind. Without the project, they would have to be redrawn, and that would include more ramps into downtown. Salt Lake City, meanwhile, has said it won't support any new ramps without a light rail system.

By the time this mess is unraveled, traffic congestion will choke the metro area and the 2002 Olympics will have come and gone, provided the athletes aren't still crawling toward their venues.

The 80 percent federal share is important, as well. Without it, the light rail project would not be built. A smaller federal share would require a tax increase, and Utah voters already rejected that idea at the ballot box.

Given these realities, Utahns should ask themselves whether an ultimate tax increase for light rail would be more economical than a tax increase for a new freeway.

One more thing: The House budget resolution includes a curious attack on all urban rail systems, saying there is no evidence they reduce traffic congestion. Last year's resolution contained similar drivel. It is an irrelevant statement. Traffic congestion is going to increase regardless of the system in place. The important thing is to provide a clean alternative.

In the years following World War II, freeway construction allowed people to live farther away from city centers. The sprawl increased and became more widespread as highways got better, and that in turn led to more demand for even better and larger highways. At some point, this spiraling paradox begins to break down in a cloud of exhaust. Cities simply can't pave their way to a better commute.

The Wasatch Front has reached that point. Future generations may hold this one accountable if it fails to plan a mass-transit alternative.