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West-east rail line may get $20 million boost

SHARE West-east rail line may get $20 million boost

The Utah Transit Authority could save about $20 million on construction of its north-south light-rail mass transit system and use that money to temporarily operate a proposed west-east extension.

The savings is made possible by the passage of TEA-21, the new six-year federal transportation-spending act that authorized $640 million for certain Utah transit projects, including north-south and west-east light rail.The bill permits local money spent on other transportation projects, such as I-15 reconstruction, to count as the required 20 percent local match for the light-rail projects. That means a fifth of the roughly $100 million that has yet to be appropriated by Congress for the $312 million north-south line could be used by UTA on other projects.

UTA General Manager John Inglish said it might be wise for UTA to spend that money on other things, such as buying new buses. But he acknowledged some people within the community would like to see the money used to pay for the approximately $7 million annual expense of operating west-east light rail.

With up to 100 percent of the estimated $374 million construction cost of the 10.9-mile west-east line potentially available from the federal government, UTA could theoretically build the extension before the 2002 Winter Games and operate it well into 2004 without additional public subsidy - like a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase.

The problem with that idea, Inglish points out, is that UTA could be in a position of having to shut down the west-east line less than three years after it opens if voters do not, at some point, approve a hike in the quarter-cent sales tax share UTA now collects within its six-county district.

"We must be very, very careful about that" idea, Inglish said Wednesday. "It is not good practice to use capital funds to (finance) an ongoing operation" because those funds eventually run out.

Inglish cautioned that using any savings from the north-south project on the west-east project - if, in fact, that savings is realized - is not a concept he is promoting or encouraging. And neither is the UTA Board. But, he said, having an extra $20 million it wasn't counting on would give the transit agency a lot of options.

UTA should know for sure in a few months whether it will be able to retain the $20 million.

Gov. Mike Leavitt recently visited Washington, D.C., where he met with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Transportation Appropriation Committee.

Leavitt said Wolf agreed that there should be language in the next transportation appropriations bill that allows UTA to use current light-rail planning money on west-east light-rail planning.

He said UTA officials told him it is important to have the flexibility to use existing planning money on west-east light rail and not just on the north-south line.

Inglish said it might not make sense to use unneeded north-south money on the planning or construction of the west-east line because - thanks to TEA-21 - 100 percent of those costs eventually could be appropriated by Congress.

UTA could, however, use some of the $20 million temporarily to plan the west-east line, if it does not get enough money appropriated from Congress to keep the west-east line on its ambitious schedule for completion before the Winter Games.

Inglish said it does not look like Congress - now in the process of deciding which previously authorized projects will receive money in 1999 - is going to give much money to the west-east project next year. Congress is expected to wrap up that process within the next few months.

Rick Thorpe, UTA light-rail project manager, said UTA requested $30 million for the west-east line in '99 but could live with $20 million. The Senate, however, wants to appropriate just $8 million and the House has recommended only $3 million for next year, Thorpe said.

If a typical congressional compromise is reached, UTA would be given about $5.5 million in '99 to continue planning the route that would connect Salt Lake International Airport with the University of Utah and transport Olympic spectators in 2002.

That level of funding, Thorpe said, could make it a necessity for UTA to use an accelerated design-build process - like the method being used to rebuild 17 miles of I-15 in Salt Lake County - to construct the west-east extension in time for the Winter Games.

The $5.5 million likely would be used to complete the preliminary engineering and environmental work and to begin the design-build selection process, Thorpe said.

The UTA board, however, could decide to use the $20 million in savings to continue planning for construction of the west-east line using traditional methods.

Another option is using the $20 million to pay back money it borrowed to serve as the local match for north-south appropriations it has already received.

Thorpe said any extra money also could be used to improve the north-south line, including adding more double-track segments.