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Short of funds, UTA parks 21 used rail cars in Midvale and Murray

Utah Transit Authority has recently added 21 idle rail cars to Midvale and Murray's landscape. They might stay for awhile, at least until UTA can find the money to operate them.

In June 2004, UTA purchased 30 used light-rail trains to expedite travel in the Salt Lake Valley. Because of funding problems, UTA has only been able to refurbish nine of the trains, which cost $400,000 each to renovate. At the time, UTA representatives bought the cars from San Jose, Calif., in anticipation of increased ridership and snagged the used cars, which usually sell for $2.5 million new, for $180,000 each.

The nine new trains in operation are express trains that run from Sandy Civic Center to the University of Utah. The other 21, wrapped in gray tarps, are sitting at UTA's Midvale Service Center and TRAX's Murray Central Station. Justin Jones, UTA spokesman, said the trains will remain idle until UTA finds the money to update the trains to meet UTA's system.

"We have not considered increasing fares" to pay for the upgrades, Jones said. Fares have already increased five cents this year, and another 10-cent fare increase is planned for January 2006. But the fares only help pay for operating the current system, including fuel costs, not future projects.

To fund future projects, UTA is relying on a transportation bill, which Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, helped write in late July that, if passed, may free up money for transportation projects in Utah, included millions devoted to public transportation.

The extra cars will be much needed, said rider Dave Roach, 55, from West Jordan, who rides TRAX every day to work in downtown Salt Lake City. Roach and his wife, Jannette, park at the Fashion Place station and ride into work on TRAX, where they say the trains are late and overcrowded, many times with standing room only.

"It'd be nice if they got it sooner," Jannette Roach said, referring to the refurbishing of the rail cars, "because it's needed now."

The Roaches said overall they have been pleased with TRAX and have always been able to find a spot at the park-and-ride on 6400 South.

Michelle Laxman of West Jordan, however, avoids the station at 9000 South, Historic Sandy, even though it's closer to home, saying there are never any available parking spots.

Beginning in late August, many lots throughout the TRAX line began to reach capacity, some overflowing into streets and business parking lots. At the Historic Sandy station, Jones says all of the 321 parking spots are consistently full and cars spill over onto neighboring streets, even though they've expanded the lot. He said riders from Sandy are encouraged to park at the Sandy Civic Center.

Laxman, a sophomore vocal performance major at University of Utah, who now parks at 7800 South, Midvale Center Station, said UTA's main problem, though, is lack of cars to fit demand.

"Around 12:55, the University Line coming from the stadium doesn't have enough cars," she said. "They only have two cars, and this is right after class gets out. People are standing in the doorways, even though they tell you you can't."

On any given week, Jones said UTA fields more than 1,000 calls complaining about the overcrowded conditions on TRAX and connecting buses. One woman sent a picture taken from her camera phone of people packed on a bus that she was riding.

"We don't have a lot of buses just hanging around," he said, "so it's really something that we're meeting about to see how we're going to handle the influx of riders."

For now, Jones suggests riders leave their cars at home and commute in using neighborhood buses that connect to TRAX. Whenever possible, Jones added, commuters can stagger their hours, specifically students who are able to commute to school earlier, to alleviate overcrowding.

Jones emphasized that although ridership has grown faster than expected, problems will not be solved overnight; it will take time.

"We really have never seen this; this is the highest ridership in history in Utah," he said. "It really is a good thing. On the other hand, people aren't used to sharing the buses busses with quite so many people."