The Utah Transit Authority will push to finish the University TRAX light-rail spur before the 2002 Winter Games, despite a recent decision not to use the line to transport spectators to the opening and closing ceremonies.
The Salt Lake Organizing Committee, on advice from the U.S. Secret Service, has decided not to allow TRAX service to the Feb. 8 and Feb. 24 ceremonies at Rice-Eccles Stadium, nor for a staged practice Feb. 6.
But Utah Department of Transportation deputy director John Njord said Friday that will not influence UDOT's decision, expected Aug. 15, about whether to complete the extension before the Games or pave over the work and continue it after the Olympics.
UTA director of transit development Mike Allegra said UTA is working with SLOC to see if it can build a temporary station a few blocks from Rice-Eccles Stadium, perhaps near 1100 or 1200 East, where passengers could embark and walk to the events.
But even if that compromise does not occur, Allegra said the University TRAX line will play an important role during the Games.
"It still has a very significant value to moving people during the Games," Allegra said. "The university faculty and staff are still up there, the hospital is still open, the workers of the athletes' village will be using the system, and I think the plans are to use it for a shuttle system into town during the non-opening and closing (ceremonies) times."
The Secret Service expressed concern that it would be too difficult to guard against terrorist activities, such as a bomb, if light rail is used to transport spectators all the way to Rice-Eccles. The nearest permanent station that could be used as a backup is at the bottom of the hill at 900 East. The SLOC plan now is to bus spectators to the events because passengers can be more closely monitored on buses.
SLOC plans to add 130 buses, for a total of 325, to the number of buses it plans to use for the ceremonies. Those buses and drivers already will be in the area and available for use, Thomas said. Also, SLOC would fully utilize the north-south light-rail line to bring people to Main and 400 South, where buses would take them to the stadium.
"This university line is not being built merely for the Olympics," UTA spokesman Kris McBride said. "It's built for the future of transit for the Salt Lake Valley, and we have never stated this is an Olympics project."
But some state lawmakers might see it differently.
When UTA pleaded with the Legislature two years ago to promise to cough up $50 million, if needed, to operate a larger west-east line, the benefit of the extension to the Olympic Games was promoted.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Holladay, said the revelation that the TRAX extension cannot be used for the ceremonies "may cast a pall on" dealings between the Legislature and UTA.
"If it comes to light that they had information about this some time ago, UTA or UDOT or anybody else had information about this a while ago, it will negatively hurt their reputation," Poulton said Friday.
Njord said UDOT was previously aware that security issues might prevent UTA's use of TRAX to serve the Olympic ceremonies. But, he said, UDOT was informed just three weeks ago of the Secret Service's advice to not use light-rail service to the stadium.
Allegra said he thought this issue just came to light recently. But Njord Nord said, "We speculated about it for a long time."
Poulton believes that speculation should have been made public, or at least communicated to state lawmakers.
Michael Packard, a light-rail opponent and unofficial UTA watchdog, said UTA has given the public and lawmakers the impression that the University TRAX extension was vital to the Olympic effort and that being able to transport passengers to the opening and closing ceremonies was one reason why the line should be built.
When UTA General Manager John Inglish was in Washington, he "was dropping the name of the Olympics like drool from his lips," Packard said.
"They are the spin masters. This is another example that they spin information to grow this kingdom."
Inglish, who is on vacation, was unavailable for comment Friday.
While Inglish and SLOC senior vice president of venues Grant Thomas have said the 2.5-mile university line is not necessary to provide adequate transportation for the ceremonies, both agreed it would help and had planned for University TRAX to be used in that capacity.
Thomas said it would have been nice to bring spectators all the way up to the stadium on light rail but said it will be easy to make an adjustment.