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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
A TRAX train has standing room only after a Jazz game. Average weekday ridership is 57,500, nearly four times more than original projections.

People said no one would ride it. TRAX would be a high-priced failure.

But on opening day, Dec. 4, 1999, the crowds came. People stood in the cold for hours, waiting to speed around town on a light-rail train, as if it were a ride at Disneyland.

That was a Saturday and the rides were free. On Monday, when a one-way ride cost $1, cars were still filled to capacity, and glitches and delays plagued the commute. In the weeks that followed, problems of that first run were fixed, and riders continued to come.

Today, average weekday ridership on TRAX is 57,500, nearly four times more than original projections estimated. Salt Lake County residents say they generally support the system, and they have been willing to put money behind it. In 2000 they voted for a 1/4-cent sales-tax hike to build commuter rail, increase bus service and expand TRAX by the year 2030.

But a greater test may come this November, when the Salt Lake County Council may ask voters to approve a property-tax increase that will cost homeowners an average of $95 a year on a $180,000 house. The money would go to build four TRAX extensions over the next seven years. The lines would extend to Draper, South Jordan, West Valley and the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Expanding the system in seven years will cost about $1.2 billion. Current plans call for residents to pay for $875 million through the property-tax hike. The increase would allow Salt Lake County to obtain a 30-year bond for the Utah Transit Authority to begin construction.

Supporters say space for new highways is fast being taken by housing and business development, and traffic congestion will increase with the state's rapid growth. The benefits of expanding now will be long-lasting: better travel options, improved quality of life, and more business opportunities for the state.

"This is the future," said John Inglish, UTA general manager. "This will have nearly as big an impact on the valley as the original freeway system did."

But critics question the cost. They say multimillion-dollar rail systems don't solve traffic problems, and the proposed lines will not go through every city. Light rail also steals ridership from buses, and low-income residents worry their travel options won't actually increase because they will be limited to the locations that TRAX serves.

For cities not directly part of expansion plans, it's not a perfect deal.

"TRAX has kind of turned out to be a way to get people to and from economic centers," said Russ Wall, mayor of Taylorsville. "That's problematic if you're not on the list."

Rails for the rich?

Current lines, from downtown to the University of Utah and to Sandy, are but a beginning, transit officials say.

The Draper extension would go seven miles south to Point of the Mountain, sweeping near big homes on the hillside. The airport line would travel along North Temple, ending near Terminal 1. The Mid-Jordan line would go through four cities, ending in the master-planned Daybreak development in South Jordan. The West Valley line would end at a proposed transit hub near Valley Fair Mall.

When built, those lines will put 70 percent of county residents within three miles of a TRAX station, said Mike Allegra, UTA's chief capital-development officer. Connections are planned from the bus lines and a commuter-rail system, the FrontRunner, which would run from Brigham City to Payson. Work on a 44-mile first segment of commuter rail, from Salt Lake City to Pleasant View, in Weber County, began last year and is scheduled to open in early 2008.

Putting a tax hike on the ballot, UTA says, will be a test of how serious people are about the benefits that might come from expanding light rail now, rather than in 25 years.

"You're going to get coverage, as well as frequent service and access," Allegra said.

A recent UTA poll by Dan Jones & Associates showed that only 40 percent of county voters would support a $95 annual property tax hike to expand TRAX. The poll had 424 responders and a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Support for expanding TRAX through a property-tax hike rose to 56 percent in another Dan Jones poll, when no specific amount for an increase was referenced. That poll, however, had only 245 respondents, and a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Public transit systems, with maybe the exception of those in Beijing, never pay for themselves, according to Inglish. TRAX is funded through a combination of federal money, local sales-tax dollars and fares paid by riders. Fares cover 27 percent of the system's costs.

Many west-side residents and low-income advocates have little faith that expanding TRAX will enhance transit service. UTA officials admit that rail has an initial impact on bus riders. It steals riders from routes and creates a need to realign bus service to provide access to rail.

"Ultimately, though, you have a bus system that is strong because it is providing the connections to all the rail elements and doing it more efficiently than it could otherwise," Inglish said.

With recent cuts to bus service in parts of the Salt Lake Valley, however, residents wonder what they'll ride if TRAX doesn't go through their neighborhood. Cities in western Salt Lake County say they already suffer from a lack of available bus routes.

"Are you going to put TRAX everywhere or expect that people take a bus to TRAX and then downtown?" asked Eileen Stevenson, of Kearns. "It doesn't go everywhere."

Bill Tibbitts, an anti-hunger advocate with Crossroads Urban Center, worries that low-income residents will be burdened even more if their landlords cover the costs of a property-tax hike by raising rents. He also said the agency should do more to cut administrative fat and reduce inefficiencies before asking residents to pay more for TRAX.

Salt Lake business leaders, meanwhile, say building more rail lines will enhance the state's economy. Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said that without a good transportation system, businesses won't move to the state. That means fewer jobs for a state whose population is estimated to reach 3.5 million people by 2030.

"Just plan on having your children and husbands and brothers and sisters having to move out of the state," Beattie said. "There will be no jobs here."

Funding new roads and transit is one of the chamber's top goals. It has authorized a study of transportation needs in the state, primarily along the Wasatch Front. Costs of the study are expected to reach $45,000. When finished in the next two weeks, the chamber may use the study to lobby the Legislature for more road funding or to lead a campaign this fall for a ballot referendum for transit.

"If we don't do more today, we will be crippled tomorrow," Beattie said.

Light rail in the West

Utah isn't alone in asking voters to help pay for mass-transit systems. Last year, 22 transportation-funding initiatives were approved by voters nationwide, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). In 2004, 42 of 53 initiatives were passed, including a record $4.7 billion transit-expansion plan in Denver and a $4.5 billion transit plan in Phoenix.

"I think it comes down to the fact that people simply want choice," said Bill Millar, APTA president. "They love the automobile but don't want to be stuck in traffic. And in many cases in the West, people don't have much choice other than the car."

Light-rail lines do decrease traffic, UTA says. With the current number of TRAX riders, UTA estimates that the equivalent of one lane of traffic is taken off I-15 during peak travel hours.

But transit opponents say the costs of expanding TRAX far outweigh any perceived benefits. Randal O'Toole, an economist who directs the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, says rail is but a costly "urban monument" that requires continual maintenance and eventual replacement.

"The point is, it's not going to reduce congestion, but they have convinced people it would, and that's how they've sold it," said O'Toole, whose institute tries to protect the environment without government regulation. "I see it as based on a lot of flimsy premises and dreams and hopes, and when you look at the numbers, how can you spend this money when you get so little in return, except for the people building it? It's just a way of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich."

Denver business leaders, however, say interest in their city has increased since voters passed the FasTracks plan. The measure was approved despite opposition from Colorado's governor, Bill Owens, and its Department of Transportation director, Tom Norton. Both said the plan would do little to increase mobility and improve air quality in the Denver area.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce put $750,000 into a campaign supporting FasTracks. Joseph Blake, the chamber's president, said the measure passed because the campaign was specific, people knew what they were getting and the alignment of politics was right.

By 2016, the transit system will add 119 miles of new rail to the Denver metro area and 31 park-n-ride lots. All the rail lines will converge at a central downtown location: Union Station. High-rise buildings are already being built behind the historic rail hub. The 16th Street Mall, a mile-long, pedestrian-only shopping district, is just blocks from the station.

In Utah, UTA says it is ready to build whenever funding comes. The Salt Lake County Council has yet to see a specific proposal for a tax hike, but Councilman Joe Hatch said the council is likely to put an item on the ballot this fall — given the right proposal. Work could then begin within a year on all four TRAX extensions.

"If we do this," said Hatch, "we will improve our quality of life and standard of living. I think that's a cost we've got to recognize."


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com