Because commuter rail gives very little benefit at very great cost, it poses a great hazard to Utah and America. This year, the Deseret Morning News has published articles on more than a dozen staggering problems facing an economically weakened America. The times demand the highest caliber of fiscal stewardship, not the lowest as is the case in transportation planning. This is a dangerous time for wasteful experiments in socialized transportation with outdated trains.

The beginning segment of commuter rail will cost car-driving taxpayers nearly a billion dollars, enough for a major new freeway, a badly needed freeway makeover, like Bangerter, or two Legacy Highways, (at their pre-Sierra-Club-inflated price). It will not begin to reduce congestion till well after 2020. We can get more mobility improvement with many smart, modern, least-cost, and car-user-paid alternatives.

What's the best-data ridership prediction? The Federal Transit Administration's latest "New Riders" estimate is that it would add a minuscule 1/16th of 1 percent to regional trips and 3,232 new 2-way riders by 2025 (about 3,500 by 2030). Compare that to corridor car travel of 320,000 two-way trips daily in 2030.

What's the real cost? $582 million to build it and $310 million for 23-year operating subsidy, (farebox = 30 percent, DeLeuw Cather). That's $0.9 billion just for the north section and it's 1/16th of 1 percent of new trips.

For perspective, compare it to cost-performance data in the Wasatch Front Regional Council 2030 Long-Range Plan. For each 1 percent of travel on highways the cost is $250 million. This is the gold standard in transportation cost-benefit analysis. Car-user-paid highway spending is 58 times more cost-effective than trains.

What is the cost-effectiveness on a per-daily-rider basis? The FTA's cost per new boarding is $25.32 (earning it their lowest "low" ranking). This means that every time a new rider pays a nominal $3 fare to board the train, the car-driving taxpayer will fork over $22.32 subsidy. That's $44.64 per day and $937 monthly subsidy. (See Look for the Jaguar photo for similar calculations.)

Will freeway travel times drop? Insignificant. Table 5.1 in the final environmental-impact statement shows no timesaving for most peak car trips in 2030. One in four peak drivers would save, perhaps, one minute. There would be no time saved for the vast majority of car trips in the corridor.

In sharp contrast, FTA statistics in Table 5.6 show two-way train riders getting two hours per day "user benefit."

Commuter rail won't begin to reduce congestion till after 2020. It is axiomatic that congestion isn't reduced when traffic is already free-flowing. UDOT Legacy and I-15 officials and calculations from EIS data say/show that current high car congestion, typically 20 minutes per peak-hour, peak-direction trip, will drop to zero and stay there for many years once those projects are finished.

Real congestion won't reappear even then. It will be delayed another five to 10 years by the near-paradigm-shift in car-highway operation from a flood of 21st century computer, GPS and communication/cell technologies applied to transportation. This ongoing car technology revolution will fill the gap in unmet demand for more capacity in the corridor as noted in the Legacy studies.

Bill Gates says every car will have a computer, preferably Microsoft. Putting ever-smarter computers in cars portends user-paid Super-Intelligent Transportation Systems. A million smart cars will be networked with roads and intersections. This will go far beyond current government ITS. Even the GM OnStar and clones, with nearly 3 million satellite-tethered subscribers, will be superseded. The progress and possibilities are endless.

HOV-electronic lanes may host automated buses operating as "virtual trains." (Type "automated bus testing " into Google.) This is a lower-cost replacement for commuter rail. Automated buses will integrate more economically with future bus operations.

Commuter rail will damage bus ridership as TRAX did. Bus ridership didn't grow as predicted in the QGET (Smart Growth) Databook. By 2002, despite heavy population growth, buses carried just 73 million passenger miles, the same as in 1978. This stark fact undermines many presumptions and predictions of planners and visionaries.

Comment on this story

Empty buses are everywhere, especially at suburban TRAX stations. Re-routing some of those empty buses to run in the Davis-Weber corridor could give free bus expansion for over a decade.

In order to deal with the many hazards that confront us in these difficult times, lots of money — mountains of money — will be needed. We'll also need a complete multi-path freeway grid along the Wasatch Front. There are plans, including commuter rail, to give UTA $18 billion for just 1.5 percent average share of trips between now and 2030. We will need that money to survive.

Michael T. Packard of Sandy is an engineer and safety consultant.