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East-west light-rail proposal is still a long way from reality

Here's a way to bring your neighborhood closer together: Run light-rail tracks right down the middle of it.

Planners of a proposed east-west light-rail corridor from the Salt Lake International Airport to the University of Utah say the route, rather than fragmenting the neighborhoods it bisects, would solidify them.They call it "the zipper effect."

"Light rail would create a need for more crosswalks so that people could access the (boarding) stations," said Ralph Jackson, a consultant working with government planners. "It creates more ways for people to get across the street."

Well, maybe, decision-makers say. In a recent bus ride along the proposed east-west light-rail route, Salt Lake City Council members were intrigued by the idea but not convinced.

In any case, personal relationships among neighbors is probably the least of east-west light rail's problems. The proposal has a long way to go before it becomes reality.

Planners say the best streets for east-west light rail are North Temple through the west side of Salt Lake City and 400 South through the east side. It would take a north-south jog on 400 West to access an intermodal hub, where people getting off commuter rail could theoretically hop on light rail for the rest of their journey to the office.

Putting light rail on 400 South, a major traffic artery, could be a problem. In a meeting Friday, the Utah Transportation Commission wondered how significantly light rail would affect traffic there and considered (without deciding) whether to transfer jurisdiction of the road from the state to the city should its capacity change. The I-15 reconstruction plan includes an interchange at 400 South for high-occupancy vehicles, which will increase the traffic volume even more along the road.

Jurisdictional transfer would mean Salt Lake City would be responsible for road maintenance, something city officials aren't wild about unless they're compensated somehow.

The transportation commission successfully blocked north-south light rail along State Street by threatening to abandon jurisdiction of the route. This time, however, the issue could be rendered moot by passage of a bill now pending in the Legislature that would transfer jurisdiction of all state roads, other than interstates and federal highways, to the cities in which they are located.

Planners say 400 South capacity shouldn't be a problem. If road-side parking is eliminated, the street would continue to have the current three lanes in each direction, even with light rail in the middle. What's more, the movement of light-rail cars would be synchronized with traffic signals to minimize disruption.

"You also have to look at the movement of people," Jackson said. "The mission is to carry people, and light rail carries three to five times the capacity of a normal lane."

The main problem would be left turns. They would be governed by left-turn lights on the semaphores to avoid collisions between light-rail cars and left-turning motorists.

Fourth South was chosen primarily because it has a good grade up the hill to the university. It originally was designed that way so street cars could make it up the hill.

Planners are still tinkering with the route proposal. Even apart from funding - a whole different problem - city officials need to nail down the final version soon if east-west light rail has any chance of being designed and built before the 2002 Winter Games.

Wasatch Front Regional Council transportation engineer Doug Hat-tery said the route decision needs to be made within the next two months.

The proposed location of the intermodal hub at 200 South and 600 West continues to be a sticking point. Various City Council members and others say the location makes no sense because it's two blocks away from light rail - hardly an encouragement for commuter rail riders to use light rail.

Other locations are still being considered, but should the current location be it, planners have proposed a spur of light rail dedicated solely to shuttling passengers between the intermodal hub and the light-rail line.

A combined meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission during which they will be briefed on all the pertinent issues, is scheduled for March 5.