Congressman Wayne Owens said he was dubious that a light-rail transit system would solve the Wasatch Front's mounting traffic congestion problems.
But a test ride on the light-rail trains in San Diego and Portland last week, and a tour of the proposed route in Salt Lake County, have changed the Utah Democrat's mind."I strongly endorse it," he told a crowd of reporters Monday gathered near a railroad crossing in Sandy.
Riding in a four-wheel-drive vehicle equipped with iron cast wheels for driving along train tracks, Owens saw the right of way that the Utah Transit Authority wants to purchase from Union Pacific Railroad Co. for the light rail.
The right of way includes a stretch of the railroad's Sandy line from about 1000 South to 10600 South. With at least half the route lined with warehouses, factories, junkyards and a hobo camp or two, the ride was far from being scenic. But that didn't bother Owens.
The trips with UTA officials to Portland and San Diego - where transit enthusiasts claim light rail a success - also convinced him that a light-rail line attracts development and cleans up the areas it operates in. "I was impressed with what the light rail did to the inner cities," he said.
Owens has long been a supporter of mass transit for the Wasatch Front, but he wasn't convinced light rail was the answer. He still believes the system should reach into Utah and Weber counties and not be confined to Salt Lake County.
But he concedes that the proposed $225 million single-line system from Sandy to downtown Salt Lake is a reasonable start. The cost includes doubling Utah Transit Authority's bus fleet to feed the commuter train.
Owens and others in Utah's congressional delegation have helped set aside about $15 million in federal money to purchase the Union Pacific right of way and conduct advanced engineering studies on the project.
But UTA officials don't expect that money to cover all the right of way purchase, which is in negotiation with Union Pacific.
UTA must wait for the results of a public vote on raising the bus operator's share of Salt Lake County sales tax by one-quarter cent. That extra revenue will spring loose more federal dollars for construction as well as provide ongoing funding to build and operate the train.
County officials have expressed interest in putting the issue on the ballot in November, but no formal resolution has been passed to do it.
Concerning doubts about investing in a system that few would ride and with little practical purpose other than impressing visitors, Owens acknowledged that even the most successful transit systems don't pay for themselves.
But he added that studies and polls show adequate ridership to justify a commuter train, and "if it helps get the Olympics (in Salt Lake for 1998), I'm all for it."