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Commuter rail plans running out of steam

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If you're waiting breathlessly for commuter rail service along the proposed route from Payson to Brigham City - don't. You may as well go back to breathing normally, because the route to rail is fraught with maybes.

It is extremely unlikely that diesel passenger trains will be transporting Utah commuters before the summer of 2001. In fact, it appears having a system in place before the 2002 Winter Games - 43 months from now - also would be hard to accomplish. And there is growing doubt in some minds that it ever will happen.Commuter rail systems are emerging across the country, but each region has unique difficulties associated with the start-up of service. As transit planners and advocates along the Wasatch Front have found, there are plenty of obstacles to establishing a 117-mile diesel-powered train system to serve Utah's densely populated northern region.

The enthusiasm and optimism with which community leaders, Wasatch Front Regional Council planners and consultants embraced the idea 18 months ago has faded a bit. The mood now is one of patience and perseverance.

In early 1997, Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Tom Warne was hopeful commuter rail might be up and running in 18 to 24 months, providing relief for motorists during his department's massive reconstruction of I-15 in Salt Lake County.

That hope is fading fast.

Despite commuter rail's inclusion in the recent federal Tea-21 transportation bill, making it eligible for federal construction money, commuter rail is no closer to reality.

"It is going slower than we anticipated," conceded Mike Allegra, the Utah Transit Authority's director of rail development.

There are many financial, logistical and environmental issues to be plowed through, but the bottom line is that local officials feel they are not getting the kind of support and encouragement from Union Pacific Railroad that they need to provide long-range commuters with an efficient alternative to the automobile and express buses.

"Frankly, commuter rail still has a lot of questions, even in the conceptual phase," said Utah Transit Authority General Manager John Inglish. "And I'm guessing that getting the sort of lack of interest on the part of the railroad to begin with, we're not going to be answering those questions in a big hurry.

"It's going to take time, but eventually it's going to get done."

Julie Brown, director of passenger service development for Union Pacific, said the railroad still is interested in developing commuter rail systems throughout the country, including Utah. But it has other priorities.

"Our focus is on our fundamental business and that is to move freight," she said. "We think, under the right conditions, it could happen. We think it would be monumental to get it done for the Olympics with all that needs to be completed. We're not going to disadvantage our freight service in any way to accommodate commuter rail."

The Wasatch Front had a commuter rail network stretching from Provo-Orem to Ogden between 1913 and 1946, and some legs of the system were operating as early as 1890 and as late as 1952.

Growth and development since then prohibit the placement of new tracks, but two rail corridors still traverse the urban terrain.

South of Salt Lake City, one of those lines has become the corridor for UTA's light-rail mass transit system. The other is owned by Union Pacific and used by its freight trains and others run by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Amtrak.

Consultants are about to conduct a $75,000 modeling study to show Union Pacific how commuter trains could co-exist with freight trains between Salt Lake City and Payson.

North of Salt Lake City, co-existing on the main line with freight trains is out of the question, Union Pacific has decided. The line is just too packed with freight traffic, Brown said. But the Denver-Rio Grande right-of-way still exists and could be used for commuter rail. Union Pacific is willing to sell the corridor, but it will be some time before it has an asking price, Brown said. That would add millions to the estimated $200 million construction cost, perhaps more than the public and governmental leaders are willing to spend.

The schedule for commuter-rail demonstration projects also has been delayed.

Doug Hattery, the regional council planner overseeing the commuter-rail study, said Union Pacific probably won't allow another demonstration project until the modeling study is complete. And that won't be done until the end of this year, he said.

In the meantime, the regional council and UTA are trying to come up with $1 million in local money to match a $4 million federal grant. The money would fund a major investment study, an analysis of transit alternatives for the entire north-south corridor and an environmental assessment of commuter rail.

The UTA board hasn't even committed itself to developing commuter rail and doesn't have enough revenue to operate the service if it existed.

So if you head out to catch a commuter train anytime soon, be sure to bring at least four years' worth of reading material.