SALT LAKE CITY — It's hard to tell how fast the train is going as it quietly hums along the Utah Transit Authority's new commuter rail line between Salt Lake City and Provo.
"This is our best marketing tool," UTA chief capital development officer Steve Meyer said, nodding toward I-15 where Hondas and Toyotas bunch up while FrontRunner cruises at 79 mph.
"We wanted UDOT to put on their overhead sign, 'If you were riding the train, you'd be home right now.' But they won't do it," Meyer said.
UTA will begin regular commuter rail service to and from Provo on Dec. 10. It gave media a preview Friday.
The $850 million line is the third of five taxpayer-funded transit projects voters in Salt Lake and Utah counties approved in 2006. The remaining two — TRAX lines to Salt Lake City International Airport and Draper — will open next year
The public may take a free test ride on the new line Dec. 8. UTA is asking riders to bring as "fare" a nonperishable food item to benefit the Utah Food Bank.
FrontRunner now connects Ogden and Provo and has a dozen stops in between. UTA anticipates weekday ridership on the new line to start at 8,600. Many passengers will have switched from Provo-to-Salt Lake express buses, most of which the agency is discontinuing.
"This line is a major milestone for us," said Mike Allegra, UTA general manager. "It was our biggest and most expensive line."
Although the transit authority owned the right-of-way, it had to acquire 800 separate slivers of property to lay the 45 miles of track.
"That perhaps was the most onerous and most time-consuming and most risky proposition that we had, particularly without the powers of eminent domain," Allegra said.
"This was a lot more of a challenge than the north project," Meyer said.
Construction crews built 20 bridges and 34 at-grade crossings, moved 1.7 million cubic yards of earth and relocated two canals.
Still, UTA officials said the project came in early and under budget.
As the train makes its way south, it passes through the marshy Jordan Narrows and offers sweeping views of Utah Lake to the west and Mount Timpanogos to the east. It stops in Murray, South Jordan, Draper, Lehi, American Fork and Orem. Travel time between Salt Lake City and Provo is about an hour.
"If nothing else, it's worth the ride just for the scenery," Allegra said.
In addition to commuters, FrontRunner hopes to attract riders on family outings.
"Bring your food. It's a party," said Andres Alarcon, UTA rail operations supervisor, noting that unlike TRAX, food and drinks are allowed on FrontRunner. "It's definitely a family-friendly product."
Even as it opens the Provo-to-Salt Lake City line, UTA is already looking to expand the system farther north and south. Preliminary work on extending the commuter rail north to Brigham City began this week. Plans to go south to Payson and possibly Santaquin also are on the drawing board.
"If you look around the world, rail transit is something that every modern city has incorporated to make their communities a better place to live," said Paul O'Brien, UTA rail service general manager.
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