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Utah bill to study a statewide commuter rail system advances to Senate

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UTA’s FrontRunner pulls into the Pleasant View station during a community celebration September 27, 2008 in preparation for Monday’s FrontRunner service to Pleasant View, Utah. Keith Johnson/Deseret News

UTA’s FrontRunner pulls into the Pleasant View station during a community celebration September 27, 2008 in preparation for Monday’s FrontRunner service to Pleasant View, Utah. Keith Johnson/Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — One day, could a high-speed rail serve tourist destinations in Utah, like ski resorts along the Wasatch Front or even all the way to Moab?

Maybe. A bill that would fund a statewide study on those “pie-in-the-sky” ideas, as bill sponsor Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, called them, is gaining traction on Capitol Hill.

The bill, SB92, which would pave the way for a study of a statewide rail system — and a more expansive and sustainable future for commuter rail in Utah — cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday. It was unanimously endorsed by the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee and now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

To Anderegg, the bill wouldn’t just be to study exciting ideas like “double-tracking” FrontRunner, upping speeds, or expanding rail lines not just throughout the Salt Lake Valley, but also to Davis, Weber, Utah and Tooele counties.

It’s to plan for a more feasible future in a state experiencing rapid population growth and already experiencing gridlock, especially in his district near the Point of the Mountain, where he said just in the last two years he’s gained over 50,000 constituents.

“If we’re going to double our population in the next 30 to 35 years, how in the world are we going to keep up?” Anderegg said. “If we don’t have multimodal options, we’re going to find ourselves in gridlock much worse than we already are.”

The bill seeks about $2.1 million in one-time money to fund the study for two years.

The study would be of not just what it would take to upgrade Utah’s rail system, including FrontRunner commuter trains, but also it would “dovetail,” Anderegg said, into the Utah Inland Port Authority’s business plan, which is currently in the works and expected to be released this spring.

Anderegg, who helped usher in Stadler Rail to Utah, said if the state wants to build an inland port, it must seek ways to create a more “sustainable” future, possibly by electrifying trains and do “whatever it takes for us to get away from diesel.”

Utah Transit Authority is already looking at ways to ease the environmental impact of rail travel, such as double- and even triple-tracking portions of the rail lines and switching from diesel locomotives to electric.

Anderegg said his bill would seek to bring together the Utah Transit Authority, the Utah Department of Transportation, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, and other regional and local governments to create a comprehensive, statewide plan for ensuring feasible transportation for decades to come.

The bill was supported by representatives from Union Pacific as well as the Utah Rail Passengers Association. It faced no opposition from lawmakers on Thursday’s committee.