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UTA aims to put 2nd rail line on fast track

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Design-build isn't just for freeways.

The Utah Transit Authority plans to use the same fast-track construction method now being used to reconstruct I-15 to build an east-west light-rail extension from Salt Lake International Airport to the University of Utah.The 10.9-mile line could be built in two years, between roughly December 1999 and December 2001, and could be operational before the 2002 Winter Games in February - if it is designed at essentially the same time it is built.

"Our challenge now is to find a way to get it done" before the Olympics, UTA engineering director Mike Allegra said last week. "It's an aggressive schedule."

Following more conventional protocol - designing the entire system before breaking ground - would extend the project by another year or so, Allegra said, meaning only the north-south line would be in operation for the Olympics.

That initial 15-mile route from Sandy to Salt Lake City is under construction and is scheduled to open in March 2000.

A lot has to happen before workers can start installing rails for the east-west line, which likely would run along North Temple, 400 West and 400 South through Salt Lake City.

The UTA Board of Directors took the next step toward giving the Salt Lake Valley two light-rail mass transit routes by voting, with only Sam Taylor dissenting, to ask the Federal Transit Administration for approval to begin the 18-month preliminary engineering process. That will tell UTA exactly how much the east-west line will cost to build and operate and will finalize the route it will follow.

The board's action was made possible by the announcement that Salt Lake City and Deseret Management Corp. would donate a combined $1.6 million to serve as the local match for the $8 million preliminary engineering study and final environmental impact statement.

UTA still lacks money to build or operate the east-west line, but Allegra said his staff is optimistic that a "creative" funding approach might secure enough dollars to begin construction by late 1999.

"The next big hurdle is the next surface transportation act," Allegra said of federal funding authorization for highway and transit projects.

Congress is expected to pass a long-term spending bill next spring, and the bill's makeup will go a long way toward determining how much federal assistance UTA will get to build the east-west line. The feds are paying 80 percent of the construction costs of the north-south line.

"We hope the next (surface transportation act) has something in there specifically referring to the west-east line," Allegra said. "I would hope we get better than 50-50 funding" from the feds.

The federal government could give UTA more than the amount authorized in the surface transportation bill as it did with the north-south line, Allegra said.

The rest of the funding - the required local contribution - could come from a quarter-cent increase in UTA's sales-tax share or some other tax increase voted on by the public. Allegra said his staff is assuming such a vote, if there is one, would take place in November 1999.

UTA could have preliminary engineering work completed by July 1999. After that, Allegra said, the agency would want to begin acquiring right of way, plan for the relocation of utility lines and decide what type and how many light- rail cars it needs for east-west service - all in preparation for a thumbs-up vote in November of that year, or some other funding solution.