clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

UTA's confidence pumped up after St. Louis light-rail meet

A group of Utahns who are shepherding the arrival of light rail mass transit in the Salt Lake Valley left Missouri Wednesday feeling more confident they are doing the right thing, the right way and for the right reasons.

Five Utah Transit Authority board members were among the nearly two dozens Utahns who spent up to five days in St. Louis for the third-annual Rail-Volution transit and community development conference, which ended Wednesday.What they heard from managers of other U.S. light rail systems is that the 15-mile line now under construction from Sandy to Salt Lake City should be popular and exceed ridership projections.

By comparing notes with others, UTA board members felt assured that their Transit Express (TRAX) won't be too fancy, but attractive and efficient enough to combine with UTA's bus service and provide a reliable transportation alternative for the valley.

"Light rail is the revolution of transportation for the 21st century, regardless of what any of the opponents say," said a pumped-up Richard Kuchinsky, a board member who was among the critics of light rail a year ago but has since changed his thinking.

Kuchinsky, Sandy, and Monta Rae Jeppson, Orem's representative on the board, said that while other transit agencies have spent more money dressing up their light rail systems, they are certain TRAX will be a first-class operation and at a bargain for $312 million. The project is now more than $20 million under budget with only a couple major construction contracts left to be awarded.

"I felt there were some extra things I'd like to have (for TRAX), but we're having enough (amenities) - pretty similar to what they have (in St. Louis) and they are sufficient," Jeppson said, referring to the stations, cars, maintenance facility and other infrastructure she witnessed on a Tuesday tour of MetroLink, St. Louis' four-year-old light rail line.

Kuchinsky, Jeppson and fellow board member Arlo Nelson said other agencies reported overwhelmingly that their systems became overnight successes, prompting community leaders from around their regions to ask for light rail spurs into their neighborhoods.

"As soon as the north-south line gets in people are going to want that airport-to-university extension," Jeppson said of the proposed 10.9-mile east-west line, estimated to cost $374 million. "I'd still like to see commuter rail in before the Olympics . . . (and) before that east-west line."

Nelson said he was struck by the amount of development and redevelopment that has taken place along light rail corridors in other cities, and how involved some local governments have been in planning for light rail. He said he hopes the five cities along the TRAX line will take advantage and turn their station stops into vibrant mini-communities with nearby housing, shops and entertainment.

"Will it be a cold park-and-ride lot or will (cities) get on the bandwagon and do some land-use planning and (use light rail to) help them build up their economy?" Nelson asked rhetorically. "If this is the revolution of the future, we're seeing a great public opportunity and we should all be helping each other."

Kevin Young, a Salt Lake City transportation engineer, said conference workshops led him to believe light rail will have a dramatic and mostly positive impact on downtown, particularly on the business sector.

"The biggest thing we heard from those who have light rail is that it can be a success and work positively for us," Young said. "We heard a few people say they've had their problems, but everybody seemed to have actual ridership much higher than projected. It'll be interesting to see how it all develops."

TRAX is scheduled for completion in March 2000. Riderships is projected at just 15,000 passengers a day when the system opens but is expected to reach 25,000 within two or three years.

Ryan Davies, who represented the Coalition for Utah's Future at the conference, said he learned a lot about what went wrong in Los Angeles and other cities that hosted Olympic Games or other big events. He said he's bringing back ideas about "how to prevent economic decline after a major event."

"Salt Lake is in a very interesting position in that we are going to experience rapid growth related to the Olympics," Davies said. "The key to the planning process is that we have to involve the citizens, bring it down to a micro level."

Nearly 800 transit proponents, government officials, activists, business leaders and others from around the country and abroad attended the four-day conference, co-sponsored by UTA. It will be held in Portland, Ore., next September at the same time that light rail system's first extension is expected to open. Salt Lake City is tentatively scheduled as the site of the 2001 conference.