As a result of approval given by the Legislature earlier this year, an election could be held anytime after Dec. 31 to determine if voters will approve a quarter-cent sales tax to finance a light-rail transit system along the Wasatch Front. But two big questions must be answered first.
The most important, of course, is whether residents appear willing to tax themselves to support construction of the $225 million system. The second question is when to hold such an election.Much of the answer to that second question depends on the level of support for light rail among voters. If support is lacking, the election should be delayed long enough for officials to conduct an education campaign on the merits of light rail.
But if decision-making on light rail is postponed too long, the Salt Lake area could lose a chance at federal funding. Aside from budget cuts that might come when current funding expires Sept. 30, 1991, competition for funds is growing. Many projects are peaking out, freeing up funds. At the same time, some 30 cities have projects in the planning stage.
Almost every city that has light-rail transit is working on expansion of the system, even those places where ridership figures may be falling short of projections at the moment. Local officials around the country seem to have their eyes on the future. Sadly, there's room for wondering if some officials along the Wasatch Front in Utah are as farsighted.
As Jack Gilstrap, executive vice president of the American Public Transit Association,explained during a visit to Utah last summer, there exists a "window of opportunity" the next year or so to get federal funding. After that, the chances will shrink.
This argues for a special election early next year instead of waiting until November 1991. Officials of the Utah Transit Authority would prefer to move quickly.
Special elections can be uncertain, but fairly solid public support for light rail seems to exist. A Dan Jones & Associates poll published in September showed 57 percent favoring the tax hike for light rail. And more than 40 percent said they would use a light-rail system, a very high figure.
On the other hand, members of the Salt Lake County Commission - responsible for setting an election date - do not like special elections. Mayors of cities along the Wasatch Front have voiced some skepticism about light rail, and many would oppose a special election.
Yet the need for a light-rail system is clear. Few people dispute predictions of significant growth in population and traffic along the I-15 corridor in the next 10-20 years. The kind of growth being talked about would produce traffic gridlock on the highway system. In addition, the Persian Gulf crisis clearly shows the vulnerability of gasoline supplies for motorists - everything from soaring prices to actual shortages are possible.
A light-rail system would be expensive up front, but over the long haul would be cheaper to operate than a massive expansion of bus service - bus service that would be caught in any traffic gridlock. Certainly, getting motorists out of their autos and into mass transit could be a struggle. But as traffic becomes more congested and travel time takes longer and gets more expensive, a light-rail system looks increasingly attractive.
And when the crunch comes - as it must some day - it will be too late to suddenly rush out build a light-rail system overnight. Let's not short-change the future with myopic refusal to face facts today. It's not too early to start a light-rail program. Utahns should move as quickly as possible to get started.