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UTA planning changes to accommodate crowds

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With almost 1.7 million public transportation riders expected during the Olympics Games, the potential for mass-transit havoc is high.

But officials at UTA have been planning and implementing several changes to accommodate the Olympic hordes.

"We know people coming from other cities will expect a good transportation system and we think we can provide it," said Kris McBride, spokesman for UTA.

Among other things, UTA:

Has borrowed 900 buses from out of state.

Will almost double its fleet of light-rail cars by borrowing 29 cars from the Dallas Area Rapid Transport.

Will change the timetable of several bus routes.

Will increase the frequency of and number of cars in TRAX trains.

Plans to add 300 drivers to its Games-time operations.

On that latter point, UTA acknowledges that problems occurred during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta due to drivers brought in from out of state to augment the usual number of bus drivers. Of the 300 drivers UTA is hiring, 150 will be from out of state. "In Atlanta, it was an issue," McBride said, "but we are going to do extensive route training."

Additionally, UTA will use out-of-state drivers largely for shuttle routes that will not change from day to day.

McBride said UTA hopes to reduce traffic by 20 percent during Games times and despite current congested conditions, feels that Utahns will learn to hop on light rail rather than reach for the car keys. "We're close to capacity with cars. We need to do something to reduce the congestion," McBride said.

Although most people will probably use TRAX, there may be problems if everyone only uses TRAX as their public transportation.

"If everyone took TRAX, it would be overbalanced. UTA needs to ensure that the system is balanced by letting people know about other services," said Michael Huerta, SLOC spokesman.

Huerta added that for many people, TRAX is not the best option. He said spectators need to look at where they are coming from and which transportation option would be the best, whether that be buses, carpooling or walking.

"We're relying on their (UTA) expertise to move large groups of people," Huerta said.

The trial run of the UTA system came Monday night at the First Night celebration in downtown Salt Lake. Lines were long and many hoping to use the transportation system after the last firework went out were left waiting.

However, McBride said that the reason for the congestion was that the 29 DART light-rail vehicles were not in operation. Part of UTA's contract with DART is they will only be operated by DART employees. Those employees were not able to be in Salt Lake for First Night, and UTA was unable to run the DART trains, causing line buildups.

"That was not a true representation of how the transportation will be during the Olympics because DART wasn't operational," McBride said.

McBride noted that for security reasons, TRAX trains will not be used to transport crowds to Rice-Eccles Stadium for opening and closing ceremonies or dress rehearsals.

"They just don't want the trains to get that close to the stadium," McBride said. This might prove tough to public transportation users trying to avoid parking hassles. However, McBride said shuttle buses will still be running to the stadium for the ceremonies and dress rehearsals.

However, to those who want to drive during the Olympics, the outlook is somewhat bleak. There is no designated Olympic parking at the venues for the public, and a chunk of downtown Salt Lake will be closed to all unauthorized vehicles. Drivers will also be cautioned that driving to a venue may take up to six times longer than normal.

To help alleviate the traffic particularly downtown, SLOC and UTA have been strongly encouraging businesses to switch their work hours to 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

"Surprisingly, there has been a very positive reaction from businesses," McBride said.

McBride also stressed that the key to surviving traffic tangles will be checking www.utahcommuterlink.comand calling the travelers information phone line by dialing 511.

E-mail: sgiles@desnews.com