The Salt Lake City Council's cool response Thursday to supporting a light-rail system in the area has perplexed Utah Transit Authority officials, who would like to see an expanded transit system in use by the mid-'90s.

The council agreed only to study a resolution of support for the UTA for a rail system on the I-15 corridor after Councilman Alan Hardman and others cast a skeptical eye toward the $225 million project.Hardman, calling a light-rail system an "expensive toy," said he doubts such a system could be supported by ridership in the Salt Lake Valley.

"I have some serious reservations spending millions of dollars . . . for something the public may not want to use," he said.

"I'm confused," said John Inglish, assistant UTA general manager. "Salt Lake City is going to be the major beneficiary of a light-rail system."

Inglish said an independent environmental impact study estimated a light-rail ridership of 20,000 to 22,000 Utahns per day, roughly equivalent to ridership in Portland, Ore., where a light-rail line opened 21/2 years ago.

Hardman has criticized UTA for a poor ridership of 1.47 riders per mile, a figure UTA officials say is as good or better than similar cities and does not reflect the heavy use of UTA buses during peak ridership times.

Utahns' attachment to automobiles must be overcome if a transit system will be successful, Hardman said. "What public transportation has to compete with is the convenience factor."

Councilman Tom Godfrey, however, said "gridlock" conditions on area highways now and those expected in the future would make a light-rail system not only necessary but also convenient.

Advising caution, Hardman said UTA should continue the roughly $20 million in land acquisition needed for the system and preliminary engineering efforts but without a full commitment for the rail system until a referendum vote.

Inglish said Hardman's plan would hinder the light-rail plan because UTA will not begin acquiring the necessary rights of way without a "full commitment" to a light-rail system.

UTA plans will make a final decision this summer.

The council disagreed over a draft resolution of support calling light-rail "cost effective" and another drafted by Hardman qualifying the need for "public commitment to the usage of mass transit."

Upon a recommendation from Mayor Palmer DePaulis, the council agreed to study both resolutions and draft some compromise language.