A Florida congressmen flew over the suggested route for a light rail system in Salt Lake County this week. Afterwards, he urged the state to get started, although Utahns may have a hard time doing what he says.
Rep. William Lehman, D-Fla., said the cost of the project would be the lowest per mile he has ever seen and there would be no trouble in getting Congress to put up its 50 percent share of a $200 million system. The project could begin in three years.A subcommittee of the county's business-government alliance suggests a two-track light rail running from near 106th South along the Union Pacific right-of-way and terminating in downtown Salt Lake City. Just where the terminus would be is still a matter of debate.
The light rail would have park-and-ride stations along the route, allowing motorists to drive from east and west neighborhoods to board the train near the center of the valley.
Certainly, the need is there. Traffic on the I-15 north-south corridor slows to a crawl - or less - at rush hours and is growing increasingly heavier at other times as well. Forecasts say the volume could double in 15 years, turning freeways into long parking lots. Other roads in the county face the same problem.
Waiting until then to do something about a light rail system may be too late. It could take 10 years to construct a light rail system, which means Utahns had better start planning and working now.
Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to doing what Lehman suggests. Where will the money come from? Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, who invited Lehman for the look-see, suggests a quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax.
But Utah is in the midst of a serious taxpayer revolt. The climate for raising taxes could hardly be more difficult, although people might feel differently about a specific tax for a specific purpose. However, Utahns outside Salt Lake County, particularly those in hard-pressed rural areas of the state, would be inclined to reject a tax hike that benefited only the metropolitan Salt Lake area.
Second, would a light rail system entice drivers out of their cars? Experience shows that motorists stick with the family car to the last, although the Utah Transit Authority showed a small increase - about 2 percent - in ridership last year. But the love affair with the auto could change if driving became the slowest and most aggravating way to get to work.
Third, money is tight. And as long as driving is the preferred way to get around, it might make more sense to upgrade highways to handle the already-difficult traffic problem. For example, I-15 needs to be widened, I-215 must be completed, and the West Valley Highway must be finished.
Using scarce resources to cope with the auto first has its advantages. But it will only buy a little time, at best. And where will cars go once they reach Salt Lake City? This is a real dilemma, but the state and Salt Lake County cannot afford to dither around.
Asking officials to embark on a major, expensive project in the current tax climate may be expecting too much. Yet failure to look ahead and build in time could result in a traffic crisis, and be ultimately more costly, than seizing the opportunity now.