Since transit planners first hatched the idea of a building a multimillion- dollar light rail commuter train in Salt Lake County, there has been no organized opposition to it.
As Utah Transit Authority's publicity machine churned out praise for light rail, only a few lone individuals would surface questioning the wisdom of the project.But that all changed this week with a group taking up the acronym ALRT, or Area Leaders for Responsible Transportation. The group consisting of some 50 legislators, mayors and city council members officially announced its creation and mission Friday at a press conference in West Valley City Hall.
"The promoters of light rail have given the public the impression that light rail has widespread community and leadership support," the coalition's initial press release said. "That is far from being true."
Sen. Bill Barton, R-West Valley City, co-founder and spokesman for the group, said its objective is to slam the brakes on UTA's promotion of light rail and examine "genuine needs and responsible solutions" to the county's transportation problems.
Unless that happens, "we will spend a lot of money and will find ourselves having gone too far to turn back," he said.
UTA says it welcomes ALRT to the light rail debate. "We're glad they are concerned about this and we welcome the opportunity to discuss it with them," said UTA spokesman Craig Rasmussen.
Specifically, UTA will have to convincingly address ALRT's three main positions:
- Place a higher priority on highway improvements in Salt Lake Valley.
- Place light rail low on the priority list until questions about its need, usage, cost effectiveness, long range costs and "other negative impacts" are answered.
- Encourage UTA to provide better bus service, particularly east-west routes.
But UTA isn't confident about winning over many of ALRT's membership. UTA general manager John Pingree said it is critical to have elected officials informed and on board. "But we can't win them all. Some will never come," he said.
All of ALRT's concerns have been addressed in an exhaustive draft environmental impact statement on what highway and transit improvements are necessary to relieve congestion on I-15, Rasmussen said. The study took four years to complete.
But ALRT isn't convinced by the study's figures says it wants a more complete evaluation before a final decision is reached.
Re-evaluating light rail, however, isn't the first item on ALRT's agenda. It must first stop the ongoing march toward financing the commuter train.
Two months ago, UTA and the Utah Department of Transportation adopted the study's "alternative 11" - which proposes spending $679 million on adding four lanes to I-15 and building a light rail train between Sandy and Salt Lake. Both agencies are preparing bids for engineers to complete final environmental impact statements necessary for federal funding.
Light rail proponents, including Utah's congressional delegation, have long argued that officials must act quickly to qualify for a drying up pool of federal dollars funding mass transit projects. UTA wants to put the light rail issue before voters next year in the form of a quarter-cent sales tax increase. But Barton said his group wants to delay that election indefinitely.
He said that federal dollars may dry up, but that doesn't mean much if that money builds a white elephant Utah taxpayers must pay to operate.