Regional planners, searching for a spare $1 million for months, still haven't found all the extra cash they need to match a $4 million federal grant and move forward with bringing commuter rail service to Utah.

But thanks to the Utah Transit Authority, they think they might be able to scrape up enough to keep that hope alive, at least for another round of studies.The UTA Board of Directors agreed Wednesday to put $185,000 into the first phase of a two-pronged approach aimed

at finding out, once and for all, if a peak-hour diesel train service between Brigham City and Payson is both desirable and possible.

Planners with the Wasatch Front Regional Council and Mountainland Association of Governments decided recently

to split the $5 million study into two phases so that a smaller local match would be needed to begin the work.

With $1.5 million intended for the first phase, only $300,000 must come from local sources. Now that UTA has committed, commuter rail advocates hope each of the two regional planning organizations will contribute $15,000 and the Utah Department of Transportation will throw in $85,000.

Doug Hattery, the regional council's transportation engineer for plans and programs, said he is optimistic UDOT will help out.

"They wanted to make sure we were considering highway alternatives - high-occupancy vehicle lanes and general highway improvements - and we will as part of this," Hattery said.

The two planning organizations and their consultants will soon wrap up the feasibility study they've been working on for the last 18 months.

The next steps, part of the $1.5 million first phase of the new study, could be taken in the next few months if the remaining funding falls in line soon. That work would include the following:

- An $850,000 alternatives analysis evaluating all transportation options in the Payson-to-Brigham City corridor and estimating the cost of each.

- Discussions and negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad ($500,000) aimed at reaching an agreement for the use of the active freight line along the Wasatch Front. These talks could lead to the purchase of less-used rail lines and spurs for commuter rail, including the old Denver-Rio Grande tracks north of Salt Lake City.

- A more extensive study of the potential demand and ridership for commuter rail service ($150,000).

The $3.5 million second phase would involve several equipment demonstrations more extensive than the 90-minute commuter rail trek for state legislators and VIPs last winter. A full environmental impact statement, estimated to cost about $2.2 million, also would be done then.

Planners are hoping UTA would kick in $700,000 - the entire local match required - for the second phase.

The biggest challenge facing commuter rail appears to be finding room on the Union Pacific tracks or finding another suitable path along which it could operate. Union Pacific officials don't believe commuter rail service is possible on the main freight line north of Salt Lake City and that operations south of the city would present challenges as well.

Consultants De Leuw, Cather & Co. have estimated the commuter rail network would cost about $200 million to build and $12 million a year to operate. They project 4,000 commuters would use the system each day in its first year with 30 percent growth expected in the following three or four years.

Commuter rail involves diesel passenger trains operating only on weekday mornings and evenings, stopping infrequently - every five miles or so - in moving commuters long distances.

Light rail, which UTA is now constructing in Salt Lake County, is an electric-powered system that will run six days a week, throughout the day and evening, making more frequent stops.

Both systems could play key roles in the Wasatch Front's future transportation network. UTA's north-south light rail line is scheduled for a March 2000 debut. Commuter rail, however, is probably four or more years away.