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Sunday TRAX not on track
It will be the only one in U.S. to not offer the service

On Sunday a year from now, passengers pour out of TRAX cars at Salt Lake City's Ballpark station, ready for an afternoon of minor league baseball.

The scene near Franklin Covey Field seems plausible, but not likely anytime soon.When the Utah Transit Authority opens its light-rail mass transit system this fall or winter, it will be the only light-rail line in the country to shut down on Sundays.

And UTA is unlikely to add Sunday service, either for TRAX or its bus system, until it has more than a quarter-cent sales tax subsidy as its source for operating revenue.

"We certainly would like to have Sunday service and more late-night service. Those are the two issues we're hearing from the public," said Mike Allegra, UTA director of rail development. "We'd have to rob Peter to pay Paul if we want to do that, and that's not what our board wants us to do right now."

UTA General Manager John Inglish said UTA provided Sunday service for a few years when the agency debuted in the 1970s, but ridership was minimal. He said UTA probably would have Sunday service today if a 1992 Salt Lake County voter referendum to fund light rail, expansion of the bus system and I-15 reconstruction had passed.

UTA's 15-mile north-south line from 10000 South in Sandy to the Delta Center is scheduled to open, officially, in March 2000. But UTA is studying the possibility of opening the line in January or as soon as November. Meanwhile, it is looking to Congress for money to build a 10.9-mile, west-east extension.

Exactly when UTA would ask for or even get the funding to operate on Sunday is not certain. But the Wasatch Front Regional Council likes the idea. It has based its transportation planning on the assumption that UTA would have the equivalent of a quarter-cent sales tax increase within the next decade, which would be enough to expand service to Sunday.

When the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system's light rail debuted in 1996, Sunday service was part of the package. Officials didn't think twice about it. But DART gets a full cent of sales tax for every buck spent in the district.

"It's a seven-day-a-week culture. A lot of people have to get into work on Saturday and Sunday," said Morgan Lyons, spokesman for DART. "Sunday use is more discretionary. One of the most popular stops is the zoo station."

The Sacramento Regional Transit District (RTD) has offered Sunday light-rail service from the get-go in 1987. RTD receives a quarter-cent sales tax subsidy from the state but also gets a 1/6th-cent share from local sales tax.

"Our approach is to try to provide a consistent level of service seven days a week," said Mike Wiley, RTD's director of administrative services.

"There's no question we're going to maintain Sunday and Saturday service. The only question is whether or not we need to increase the level of service during those (weekend) hours."

Most transit agencies do reduce the level of light-rail service on Sundays. Some operate trains less frequently, perhaps every 20 minutes instead of every 10, and some run single-car trains instead of the two- or three-car trains.

The more limited Sunday service is in direct response to demand. Sundays clearly are the lightest day of the week for light-rail travel across the country. But ridership on weekends and during the week is on the rise nationally.

In Sacramento, ridership averages 32,500 one-way trips each weekday, 14,400 on Saturdays and 10,700 on Sundays. The Sunday figure is up from 9,200 a year ago. In Dallas, average weekday ridership is 38,000, Saturday ridership is 17,492 and an average of 12,486 passengers use DART on Sundays.

Funding problems are not unique in the heavily subsidized business of public transit. Fares paid by passengers can account for as little as 20 percent of an agency's operating expenses to as much as 95 percent (San Diego).

In St. Louis, where the Bi-State Development Agency operates the MetroLink light-rail system with a 24 percent fare-box recovery, budget difficulties prompted a recent cutback in Sunday service. MetroLink trains now run every 15 minutes instead of every 10 minutes on Sundays.

"Our Sunday ridership is very good," said Linda Hancock, spokeswoman for Bi-State. "A lot of people use our transit system for recreational purposes on Sunday, to go to ball games or whatever is happening, so it was not because of ridership that we extended the headways."

Amy Coggin, communications director for the American Public Transit Association, said Sunday service for both bus and rail is the norm for metropolitan transit agencies.

"I would say that one of the things that is common is for new systems coming on line, you don't see a lot of weekend service. Typically, you build that up over time," Coggin said. "If you have more money, you can provide more service, no question, so it's how much (financial) support you have from the state and the locality."