Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Employees of Herrera's Concrete work on the commuter rail line in Farmington near a banner depicting one of the trains.

FARMINGTON — Occasionally interrupted by the whistles of passing Union Pacific freight trains, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta pledged almost a half-billion dollars Friday for the next stage of rail travel in Utah.

Mineta visited the construction site of the Farmington commuter-rail station, a spot that will one day be the nexus of I-15, U.S. 89 and the Legacy Parkway. There, he signed a full-funding grant agreement, a statement of the Bush administration's intention to spend $489 million over the next seven years to build the first phase of the Utah Transit Authority's FrontRunner commuter-rail line. That's more than 80 percent of the estimated $581 million cost of the project.

"This project couldn't come at a more critical time," Mineta said, citing projections that the population along the Wasatch Front will increase 62 percent in the next 20 years.

The grant agreement is for the first 44 miles of the commuter-rail line, from Salt Lake City to Pleasant View, Weber County. The line could ultimately run from Brigham City to Payson.

The agreement means the administration will ask for the money in upcoming budgets, although Congress must approve the funding before Utah sees it. While that is not a guarantee, UTA general manager John Inglish said Congress has never denied money budgeted under such an agreement.

In fact, the U.S. House has already approved the first installment of that money. The representatives voted Wednesday for a transportation spending bill that would send $80 million to UTA. The Senate still must approve that initial funding.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, attended the ceremony Friday and called FrontRunner "absolutely critical." He said that "future generations will look at this decision and say, 'These guys planned pretty well. They didn't just think of themselves. They planned for us.' "

Bennett added that transportation planning is vital in a state such as Utah, which despite its reputation of being largely rural is one of the nation's 10 most urbanized states, with the majority of its population squeezed along the Wasatch Front.

Mineta agreed that Utah is the right place for a project like this. "The people in Utah know congestion is not limited to Los Angeles," he said.

The secretary said Americans spend about $200 billion each year in added costs for goods, wasted fuel and squandered time because of traffic congestion. In the Salt Lake area, that cost is estimated to have been $257 million, including 15 million wasted hours, in 2003.

"Clearly we must act, and we must act fast," Mineta said. "Too many Americans have come to liken congestion to death and taxes as one of those certain things in life."

Mineta said that when the FrontRunner system becomes fully operational, almost 12,000 people are expected to ride every weekday. That will be the equivalent of taking about 6,000 cars off the roads each day.

Inglish pointed out that UTA has far surpassed initial projections for its nearly 7-year-old light-rail system, suggesting FrontRunner may similarly exceed expectations.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was not at Friday's event, issued a written statement echoing Inglish's optimism.

"UTA's light-rail line has been incredibly successful, as I'm confident the commuter rail will be," Hatch wrote. "Given UTA's history of success, it was very easy for Bob (Bennett) and me to convince the administration to green-light the commuter-rail project."

While most people at Friday's announcement focused on the future of transportation in Utah, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. drew a parallel to Utah's past, comparing FrontRunner to the historic May 10, 1869, merging of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail lines at Promontory Point.

"This project in a very real sense puts us once again on the map as a crossroads," Huntsman said.

FrontRunner is expected to begin running in fall 2008.