The Utah Transit Authority provides 85,000 Salt Lake County residents daily transportation and wants the Salt Lake City Council's suport for a light-rail system. But one council member said Saturday the UTA does little more than give jobs to bus drivers.

UTA head John Pingree appeared at a City Council retreat seeking a resolutionof support for a $225 million light-rail system along the area's 18-mile-long I-15/State Street corridor, possibly opening in 1996.Pingree said he wants the city to support the system when he goes before Congress to obtain $5 million to $10 million in federal money to continue acquiring land for light-rail rights of way.

But one council member, reacting to average UTA ridership currently being less than two people per mile, wasn't supportive of the state transit authority, funded by a tri-county, one-quarter percent sales tax.

"I have some serious concerns for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a light-rail system when we only have two riders per mile on a UTA bus," said council member Alan Hardman.

"It seems that all we're doing is providing employment for bus drivers," he added, saying he frequently observes empty buses in the city.

But UTA's ridership, averaging 1.47 riders per mile, is good - better than many similarly sized cities - and translates into 35 passengers per bus trip, Pingree said. Most automobiles, for example, carry only 0.2 passengers per mile.

Council Chairman W.M. "Willie" Stoler said he also observed empty buses and said many Utahns haven't adjusted to using bus service. "I think you have to have an attitude change," he said.

But in other Western cities such as Portland, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif., where rail transit has been developed, ridership is at capacity, said John Inglish, UTA's assistant general manager.

While Hardman and Stoler were skeptical, Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck praised UTA.

"While some of my fellow council members ride around in their cars looking at empty buses, I've become a bus rider," she said, adding half-hour trips in the city often are reduced to nine minutes.

Pingree said he wants the council's support for a light-rail system, recommended by a transportation study conducted by the Wasatch Front Regional Council, to demonstrate local enthusiasm for the mass transit plan.

"It really gives much more credibility if it comes from you instead of us...We're never going to sell this alone. It's going to be sold by people like you who represent the people," he said.

The I-15 corridor's population is expected to increase by 50 percent by the year 2005. Simply maintaining the current condition of the freeway in the corridor will cost $280 million, Pingree said.

From Congress, Pingree is seeking $5 million to $10 million to buy land for the rail. A design phase would begin after land was purchased and Pingree said the system could be on line in 1995 or 1996.

Pingree said half of the $225 million price tag could be carried by the federal government. Seventy million dollars of the total price would go toward buying more buses to service the rail line, Pingree said.

Securing the 1988 Winter Olympics, the subject of a Salt Lake bid before the U.S. Olympic Committee, would weigh heavily in favor of UTA in its efforts to win federal support for a mass transit system, he said.

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UTA fights tax

UTA will go to the Legislature next year to seek an increase in its quarter percent sales tax cap to a half percent, pending a referendum vote to help fund alight-rail system for the valley, transit officials say.