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TRAX network in S.L. Valley could mushroom fast

SHARE TRAX network in S.L. Valley could mushroom fast

As far as Salt Lake County voters six years ago were concerned, light-rail mass transit was dead.

Today, thanks in part to the coming 2002 Winter Games, transit planners are gearing up for what could be this country's most expansive construction ever of light rail in the shortest period of time.The Utah Transit Authority's 15-mile main line is scheduled to open in March 2000, and a 10.9-mile west-east extension is planned for completion before the Olympics.

Two other proposed Transit Express spurs, seven miles into Draper and six miles into West Jordan, were recently authorized to receive federal funding for engineering and construction as soon as October 2000. Planners believe segments of those spurs could be built in time for the Olympics, as could part of a proposed 5.7-mile West Valley City line.

It's possible all 44.6 miles of TRAX could be running within seven to 10 years.

"It would be an incredible task, but it's not (impossible) if the community wants it" said Mike Allegra, UTA director of rail development. The community wanting it includes a sales-tax increase.

"We can get it done. We have those opportunities now. We have the federal funds for some of these (light-rail spurs), and we have experience building facilities now. We know how to do it."

San Diego's transit agency, considered the national leader in modern electric-train development, has taken 17 years to install 47 miles of light rail.

And Portland, Ore., where support for transit is higher than annual umbrella sales, still has just a 15-mile main line 12 years after. An 18-mile extension is scheduled for completion in September.

The push for light rail is greatest in the West and South, particularly in cities that did away with electric trolley networks in mid-century when the mass production of automobiles reduced their usefulness.

"Cities that gave up their (trolley) systems are now saying, `Let's get back to where we were, say, in 1944,' " said Salt Lake mayoral aide Brian Hatch, who has been at the forefront of the region's efforts to reinvent the rail.

"We are just trying to provide an attractive alternative to an admitted minority of people who will use transit instead of the car. Nationally, a third of the people don't have access to cars. They're either too young, too old, too poor or have a disability, and so it's not just important for commuters."

Light rail can carry more passengers more efficiently than buses in certain congested corridors, planners say. Its presence would allow buses that now serve those heavy-use routes to be redeployed, increasing the proximity and frequency of bus service.

Transit games

The backbone of this light-rail network is the 15-mile line between Sandy and Salt Lake City, now under construction and planned for completion by early 2000. Extensions off the main line would follow.

But because the Olympics are on the way, preparation for construction of four of those additions has been accelerated.

In February 2002, thousands of athletes, spectators and media will need quick, reliable transportation between venues, hotels and other Olympic sites. That need played a part in the recent federal authorization for up to $640 million to build new rail projects, including the west-east line from Salt Lake International Airport to the University of Utah.

Two other spurs, Draper and West Jordan, also are eligible for federal funding. And a provision that gives the U.S. secretary of transportation discretion to provide more funding to Olympic host cities - i.e., Salt Lake City - could be tapped to finance rail transit in West Valley City, where many hotels and the Olympic site for men's ice hockey are located.

Consultants with Wilbur Smith Associates, however, say only portions of those three spurs likely could be running in 2002.

Engineer Peter Martin, who is heading up the firm's feasibility study of the Draper and West Jordan corridors, believes it might be possible to run limited service on those existing rail corridors by then.

The Draper line might only go as far as 12300 South. And any treks into West Jordan would need the full cooperation of Union Pacific Railroad, which owns that track. UTA already owns the Draper track.

Ron Holmes, the engineer in charge of a more involved study of the West Valley City corridor, said probably the best that could be done there by 2002 is a shuttle system serving Valley Fair Mall, the E Center and Decker Lake Business Park.

The two Wilbur Smith studies should be completed around October, although ridership estimates for those spurs could be released within a month. The consultants also are refining cost estimates and in West Valley City narrowing four possible routes to one preferred option.

Attitude change?

Fast becoming a part of modern-day transportation folklore is the notion that while suburban communities may at first oppose light-rail construction, they eventually hop on the track-bound bandwagon - particularly once an initial line is up and running. That has been true in Portland, Sacramento and San Diego, where suburban communities began asking for their own extensions after initial construction began.

That now appears to be happening in Salt Lake County.

West Valley City and Valley Fair Mall officials were impressed by a visit to Vancouver, Canada, where they saw light rail feeding customers to several suburban shopping complexes, according to the Wilbur Smith consultants.

The Valley Fair Mall is already a transit mecca. One in every 40 bus boardings on the entire UTA bus system - about 1,400 a day - occurs at the mall, Holmes said.

West Jordan and Draper officials, too, are open to the idea.

"I think everybody is in the wait-and-see mode, depending on where the dollars come from and if they come, but we're hoping," said West Jordan City Manager Dan Dahlgren. "We're looking for more information as time goes on."

Paul Glauser, Draper's acting city manager, said the city is concerned that it might be expected to permit development of small-lot or multiunit housing along its light-rail extension, something that has occurred in Portland. Draper doesn't want to do that, he said, but otherwise is interested in rail transit.

Sandy remains perhaps the most indignant of the four cities where extensions have been proposed. The City Council refused last year to contribute $20,000 to the south-county transit-feasibility study. But not to worry: The line into eastern Sandy along 9000 and 9400 South just won't work because of a steep grade, the consultants have determined.

What might work, however, is a mile-long extension from the main line at about 9800 South past Jordan High School and Sandy City Hall to the South Towne Center mall and perhaps on to a proposed commuter-rail station on the west side of I-15. That small spur, which could cost as much as $50 million, is now a part of the consultants' recommendation, although mall officials have yet to be approached. The city's administration and its planning staff are receptive to that idea.

With the spurs tied into the system, all sorts of specialized trains are possible, such as a route from West Valley City to the university, or from Draper to the airport.

But all grandiose plans could be shelved if UTA cannot obtain more revenue - something beyond the quarter-cent sales-tax subsidy it now receives from the six counties it serves. A voter referendum seeking a sales-tax increase for transit and road improvements throughout the region is possible in fall 1999.

That's about as long as UTA can wait before it tells the Federal Transit Administration whether it can, in fact, come up with the required local match to build and operate light rail, commuter rail, transit hubs and an expanded bus service.

UTA officials won't say so publicly, but they are working frantically to complete the initial north-south light-rail line as soon as October 1999. Proponents of expanded transit believe any referendum has a better chance of succeeding if light rail is operational before the vote - which means either speeding up north-south construction or delaying the referendum, if either is possible.

Neither would guarantee success. Denver's plans for a $16 billion, 93-mile commuter and light-rail network were dealt a setback last fall when a voter referendum for a four-tenths of a cent sales-tax increase failed, even though a 5.3-mile downtown system was already in place.

Decades from now, light rail could extend into Davis and Utah counties, and a light rail "belt route" could connect a myriad of suburban spurs by circling the outer rim of the Salt Lake Valley.

That picture now is just in the minds of a few transit visionaries who will be long gone before anything quite so complex materializes.

But the groundwork for a transit system of light rail, buses and commuter trains is already in the works. It awaits, ultimately, the acceptance or rejection of the public.