The proposal to build a multimillion-dollar light-rail operation and expand the bus system in Salt Lake County is inching ahead in the long process of securing federal funds.

About two weeks ago, the Urban Mass Transit Administration - the federal agency overseeing funding and planning of mass transit projects - said it would entertain a funding request for a final environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering study on the proposed $231 million transit upgrade in Salt Lake County."We anticipate our ($5 million to $7 million) grant approved in the next two months," said John Inglish, assistant general manager of the Utah Transit Authority.

The transit improvements to be studied involve a light-rail commuter system from Sandy to downtown Salt Lake City and expanded east-west bus service. Local transit planners say the expansion will help relieve congestion in the county's I-15 corridor.

The proposal was among 12 transit-highway alternatives analyzed over five years and detailed in a draft environmental impact statement. Public hearings on the draft were held last May.

In addition to a transit upgrade, the selected "Alternative 11" calls for spending $448 million on adding two lanes in each direction along I-15. The Utah Department of Transportation has already started its final environmental impact statement on the freeway expansion and hopes to complete it late this summer, a spokesman said.

The transit administration's recent decision gives Utah Transit Authority the go-ahead to request funding for another detailed study of the environmental impacts and costs of "Alternative 11's" transit improvements. That won't be the last step in applying for federal help toward building the project, however.

Local officials must still hold an election on increasing UTA's share of Salt Lake County sales tax to help pay for the light-rail and bus expansion. Supporters of light rail want the election this November so UTA can secure a sizable chunk of dwindling federal funds.

"If we can get that, then federal authorities will entertain a request for a 50-percent cost share in the project," Inglish said.

In a press release Wednesday announcing the Urban Mass Transit Administration's recent decision, Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, indicated the chances for federal support look good.

"UMTA's approval of this phase of the project is a milestone in our efforts to combat the growing congestion along the I-15 corridor to the city's central business district," Garn said. "UMTA realizes light rail in the Salt Lake Valley is both feasible and, more importantly, cost-effective."

Since 1987, Garn - a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee - has helped secure $16 million for the preliminary studies and purchasing right-of-way for the light-rail line.