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Might TRAX trigger economic boomlet?

Beleaguered commuters aren't the only ones anticipating light rail's arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.

Developers, builders and economic development directors are counting the days, too.If Salt Lake's experience is anything like that of other U.S. communities - and there's every reason to believe it will be - a considerable amount of development and revitalization will take place along the Utah Transit Authority's 15-mile light-rail corridor.

"The future of development all along that light-rail line is just going to be incredible," said UTA board member Richard Kuchinsky, who learned more about what Utah can expect in the way of transit-oriented development during the second day of the Rail-Volution transit and community development conference here.

Kuchinsky, four other UTA board members, several UTA staffers and representatives of five Utah cities and two counties are attending the four-day conference at St. Louis' historic Union Station. UTA, one of the financing partners of the third annual event, hopes to bring the conference to Salt Lake City in 2001.

UTA is bringing light rail to the valley by the spring of 2000, and the project is already about 25 percent complete. In the meantime, UTA is working with the five cities through which its Transit Express (TRAX) will cruise to encourage public-private cooperation in the development of property around light-rail stations.

Monday, conference attendees heard architect and transit advocate Peter Calthorpe give examples of urban and suburban commercial centers that have been resurrected through the introduction of light-rail stations. Calthorpe showed how several "dead malls" in California have been rebuilt with an emphasis on the transit stop instead of the automobile.

When parking lots are reduced or eliminated, he said, there's more room for store space, trees and grass - a pleasing result for both property owners and shoppers. Several federal housing projects on the East Coast have been razed and replaced with neighborhood-style housing developments centered on transit stops and pedestrians, he said.

"The successes (of pedestrian- and transit-oriented development) are now mounting up. They're happening all over the country," said Calthorpe, who will speak at the University of Utah on Nov. 14.

There are no "dead malls," just lots of undeveloped property along UTA's light rail corridor, which stretches from 10000 South in Sandy to 1300 South in Salt Lake City. The rail line will then follow 200 West to 700 South, head east to Main and then north to South Temple, terminating at the Delta Center.

Rick Thorpe, UTA's light-rail project manager, was pleased to see that Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Sandy and South Jordan are represented at the conference. It's important, he said, for local public officials to become aware of how other communities have taken advantage of light rail so they can begin planning for its arrival.

"UTA can't do everything by itself," Thorpe said of supervising growth along the rail corridor. "A lot of this deals with land-use and all of that is locally controlled. It's up to the cities to make those kinds of decisions and that's why it's so important to have all of these cities represented here."

This year's conference is subtitled, "Building Livable Communities with Transit," and the majority of Monday's 15 discussion workshops focused on growth and development issues.

On Tuesday, Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini was scheduled to speak about the city's gateway project but was unable to attend. Ironically, an 11th-hour funding glitch for the rail consolidation project kept her at home at Utah.

But Utahns who couldn't make it to St. Louis will have a chance to learn about transit-oriented development in the near future. The Federal Transit Authority plans to conduct a transit-oriented development workshop in Utah next month, tentatively Nov. 20-21.

Jeff Harris, a UTA transit planner, attended Monday's Federal Transit Authority workshop. He said the feds are encouraging local transit agencies to use whatever assets they have to produce revenue, such as leasing property for commercial use.

Harris and Thorpe said UTA might be able to make some money from 28 acres it owns along State Street in Midvale and Sandy. UTA bought the land for its light-rail maintenance facility but later acquired other property for that purpose when Midvale and Sandy officials objected.

The site could become a prime location for office, retail or housing - or all three - especially if UTA were to add a light-rail station stop near the property at 7800 South.

UTA also hopes to work with Midvale and the private sector to develop land it owns on the southeast corner of 7200 South and State. Part of the property will be used for a light-rail park-and-ride lot.

The city of Murray has taken the lead in transit-oriented development along the TRAX system with its plans for a large mixed-used development surrounding the Vine Street (Murray Central) station. Sandy officials are conceptualizing plans for land around the 10000 South terminus.

Salt Lake City is adding landscaping and lighting along the TRAX corridor north of 1300 South, including a five-block section of 200 West.

"The idea is to take it from being a street to being a place," J. Scott Jenkins, Salt Lake City's downtown construction project manager, said of the 200 West beautification project.

Jenkins said the city's redevelopment agency is hopeful reinvestment will occur near a future station site at 900 South and 200 West.

Kuchinsky said many local officials in Utah don't yet know enough about light rail to realize its potential as a development tool. Developers are well aware, however, Jenkins said. He said most of the available property around proposed light-rail stations was acquired more than two years ago by forward-thinking investors.

"I think there will be a paradigm shift in the thinking of elected officials as well as people in the community once (the light-rail system) is up and running," Kuchinsky said. "West Valley (City) and South Jordan are now saying, "We want to have light rail here.' "

South Jordan could get something other than light rail.

Siemens Transportation Corp., the folks who are building the 23 TRAX light-rail cars that will begin arriving in Utah next spring, have another product on the market they believe could work in that suburban city. The RegioSprinter is a lightweight rail car powered by diesel and therefore less expensive because it does not require a $1.5 million-per-mile overhead electrical power system like light rail.

And RegioSprinter cars cost about $1.7 million - $200,000 less than the light-rail cars UTA is purchasing.

RegioSprinters don't maneuver well in tight urban settings but excel on wide-open rails in a dedicated right-of-way. Thorpe and UTA chief engineer Mike Allegra said the technology could work in South Jordan because the city has an existing rail corridor not currently used by freight trains. RegioSprinter cars could be used to move passengers to the main TRAX line in Sandy, where they would then transfer onto light rail. The possible extension of TRAX or any other rail transit system into South Jordan is a long way off, however.

UTA officials say they cannot operate anything other than the 15-mile TRAX and a six-county bus system without additional revenue. Funding the construction, operation and maintenance of transit systems in the future was to be a major topic of conversation here Tuesday.