Utahns who believe Salt Lake needs a rapid mass transit system should put their money where their mouth is, the chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for funding the nation's transportation systems says.

Rep. William Lehman, D-Fla., said Salt Lake valley could have a light rail system within three years if officials begin funding for the project now.And, he said, the project would be much cheaper to build in Salt Lake than other cities.

Lehman was in Utah Wednesday as a guest of Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. Owens said he believes a voter-approved sales tax increase of a quarter of 1 percent would fund the state's share of the estimated $200 million needed to build a light rail system. Fifty percent of the project would be federally funded.

"A tax increase for a specific purpose can pass," Owens said.

"The ball's in your court," said Lehman. Further action awaits a local consensus on what's to be done and when. "It's not a question on the federal level. Utah could begin its light rail system within three to five years. My message to the people here is if you are unified on a plan, put your money where your mouth is."

Lehman is in his eighth term as chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. The subcommittee is responsible for funding America's mass transit, highway, railroad, aviation and transportation safety programs.

Lehman, who prefers seeing the problem firsthand rather than listening to hours of testimony on the floor, said, " . . . as far as Salt Lake City is concerned, the UTA is off to a very good start with its business leadership, their government officials acting together and the estimated cost per mile being the lowest I've ever encountered."

Utah is very fortunate to have the Union Pacific right of way parallel I-15 because that decreases the cost of the project, he said.

Owens, who called himself a longtime supporter of mass transit in Salt Lake County, said he has been instrumental in obtaining more than $8 million for engineering and design and right-of-way acquisition for a light rail system in the Salt Lake Valley.

Sen. Jake Garn, former Gov. Scott M. Matheson and Lehman flew over the Salt Lake Valley and the local canyons to survey possible transportation problems and needs. Later, Owens and Lehman held a press conference to discuss their findings with the news media.

"Fifteen years from now we will have twice as many cars on I-15 and it will be a total traffic gridlock," Owens said. "What we have to do now to avoid that nightmare is build this light rail transit system and put two more lanes on each direction of I-15. It is a 10-year program which we must start now."

When asked if the tax initiatives would hurt the mass transit system, Owens said it would be a problem that could be worked out, but he is hopeful the voters will reject the measures.

The current proposed light rail system would run from South Temple, along the Union Pacific corridor to 106th South in Sandy. To safely accommodate both northbound and southbound commuter trains, the route would consist of two sets of tracks.