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Lack of support may doom plans for west-east light rail

The west-east light-rail project is as confusing as Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.

In March, after the Legislature agreed the state would provide up to $50 million over 10 years to operate a 10.9-mile line from Salt Lake International Airport to the University of Utah, it appeared construction of the $480 million project was imminent. In order for it to qualify for 100 percent federal funding, it had to be built before the Olympics.All seemingly was bliss. As Bruce Frame, public affairs director for the Federal Transit Administration, told Deseret News staff writer Zack Van Eyck in a telephone interview March 5, the Legislature's commitment "is a positive step." While Frame noted that the FTA was only prepared at that time to approve a portion of the plan, Salt Lake City Councilman Carlton Christensen and Brian Hatch, a senior adviser to Mayor Deedee Corradini, were in Washington, D.C., that day to talk with FTA officials and were optimistic about securing an agreement for the entire line.

Van Eyck noted then that construction could begin as soon as June 1 with a scheduled completion date of November 2001, well before the Olympics.

But when it comes to Utah projects dependent on federal help, what seems to be guaranteed today often isn't tomorrow. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee, reacting in part to the Olympics scandal, not only excluded money from the transportation appropriations bill for the project but also added wording specifically banning federal spending for the west-east light-rail proposal. Ouch. Welcome to Washington's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't shell game.

Utah, unfortunately, is familiar with the routine.

How many times has everyone associated with Hill Air Force Base been needlessly put through emotional trauma because of the whims of Washington?

Even when Hill supposedly was saved by edicts from Congress, the Clinton administration tried to do some hocus-pocus by proposing private contract bids for bases that were ordered closed in California and Texas. If you think that was done because those two states have a lot of electoral votes that can swing an election, you're 100 percent correct.

What has saved Hill is that it has a number of tenacious defenders, led by its 1st District congressman, Jim Hansen. Hansen has repeatedly pointed out the hypocritical actions of Washington -- such as the uncovering of an administration memo ordering defense officials to help contractors beat HAFB and keep work in California. He has used his clout -- backed by other members of Utah's delegation -- to thwart attempts to put Hill back on "the endangered species list."

The west-east light-rail project does not have anyone like Hansen backing it. Second District Congressman Merrill Cook has not only failed to solidly support it but in late April called for a public vote on the plan. As this paper noted in an editorial shortly thereafter, his action could put the project at risk. And as we now know, it is. It's not known how much of an impact Cook's action had, but it certainly didn't help.

His timing was horrendous. For him to suggest some sort of referendum after the Utah Transit Authority and Utah Department of Transportation had spent thousands of hours working out the many details of the 10.9-mile stretch was not only surprising, it was irresponsible. It would be like asking the military to reassess its commitment to land at Normandy when the ships were within 10 miles of the shore.

But Cook is not the only one who is lukewarm in his support of west-east light rail. It took a plea by Gov. Mike Leavitt to get the Legislature to commit funding in case local government entities failed to provide the operating expenses. Plus, a number of people not only are against west-east light rail but against all light rail.

They should and need to be heard. But decisions also need to be made. And they were, which is what led to the optimism in March. What appeared to be clear sailing then, however, has now turned into a voyage rivaling that of the Titanic due to lack of local support and the whims of Washington. The message is clear not only for the west-east light-rail project but other local issues: Without unified support in the home port, there are a lot of icebergs on the horizon.

Deseret News editorial writer John Robinson can be reached by e-mail at jrob@desnews.com