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DEATH OF LIGHT RAIL WOULD BRING HEFTIER HIGHWAY BILLS, DIRTIER AIR

Opponents of light rail appear bent on miring the project in a molasses of misinformation. Unfortunately it is a goo that, if successful, would hinder everyone's ability to move.

Let's examine one overriding fact that isn't getting much attention: If light rail is killed, nothing would be done to improve transportation along the Wasatch Front until after the 2002 Olympics, and taxpayers ultimately would end up with a bigger bill and with air that is more difficult to breathe.Air quality, after all, should be the overriding concern in any transportation debate, followed closely by the ability to move quickly from one point to another. Both are declining these days.

Anyone considering joining the chorus for inaction ought to consider that the metro area population is growing by about 2 percent annually while the number of miles traveled by vehicles is growing by 3 percent. Soon, Utahns could qualify for a discount when they buy new cars, considering they won't ever need to shift into a gear higher than second.

Salt Lake County commissioners recently called for a non-binding referendum on whether people would support a tax increase to build a light-rail system. Politically, this was shrewd. Voters already rejected a tax increase for light rail and other transportation needs, and another vote would surely cast a negative spin on the whole idea.

The only problem, of course, is that no one these days has suggested raising taxes for light rail. A more relevant question would be whether folks would support a tax increase to widen I-15.

Congress already is on track to fund 80 percent of the light-rail system. Opponents scoff and say Congress won't agree to pay such a large share. What they don't mention is that Congress already has agreed to fund several new projects and is continuing to fund several ongoing projects on an 80-20 split.

The list includes a light-rail extension in Baltimore, the Jacksonville People Mover, the St. Louis Metrolink Light Rail and projects in Atlanta and New York City.

Now that the Utah project is part of the president's budget (Clinton included $35 million for it in 1997), continued funding is a near certainty - unless, of course, local opposition becomes too vocal.

However, freeway expansion is another matter. Utah Department of Transportation officials say they would be lucky to get the feds to pay 50 percent of that. Local taxpayers will have to pay the rest, and they may end up paying all of it.

That's because freeway expansion and light rail go together like pizza crust and cheese. Take away the cheese and no one will buy it. Federal laws require any expansion of a major regional auto route be accompanied by a corresponding reduction in air pollution. A light-rail system satisfies that requirement. Without it, the Wasatch Front would need another alternative. Unless one is found - and no one has come up with anything close - the feds aren't likely to pay for a larger freeway.

Meanwhile, abandoning light rail would cost time and money. UDOT has drafted a plan to add two new lanes in each direction on I-15. But that plan was written with light rail in mind. Remove the rail and UDOT has to return to the drawing board, adding new ramp configurations and starting public hearings all over again.

But that would only be the start of troubles. The Salt Lake City Council has made it clear it won't support any new ramps into downtown without light rail, and its opposition could delay the project indefinitely.

Fed-bashing is popular these days. I've added my voice against ridiculous requirements and the government's propensity to hold states hostage with money. But fed-bashing can take the focus from the real problems here, which are air pollution and smooth-flowing traffic.

An expanded freeway alone would relieve traffic but only for a short time. Commuters need a clean alternative, and as much as Utahns hate to get help from Washington, they can't pay for it all alone.

Those who would thwart light rail seem to have deluded themselves into believing the people don't want it. However, opinion polls consistently show about 60 percent of the people in support.

I am reminded of the French railway workers who in 1910 destroyed the wooden shoes, or sabots, that held rails in place throughout the nation. They did so in order to force their way with management.

At least this original act of "sabotage" was guided by noble interests. That's more than can be said for the folks spreading molasses on light rail.