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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
UTA formally opened its TRAX extension to the U. Health Sciences Center Monday with a "ribbon-breaking."

For University of Utah medical student Wesley Mortensen, the new TRAX line to the U. Health Sciences Center could make him smarter and a better father. It might even make him a better husband.

"I've spent 1,100 hours on either TRAX or a bus," Wesley said Monday. "That's nearly 47 days . . . or 550 movies, or 220 18-hole rounds of golf."

With a wife and kids in Sandy, Wesley said making good use of his time is important and time spent aboard TRAX is time well spent. Wesley said he can study his medical science or talk to his wife and little ones on his cell phone — safely.

Wesley and a crowd of several hundred transit supporters gathered near Primary Children's Medical Center for the official opening of the new TRAX Medical Center line. The 1.5-mile, $89.4 million line was completed 15 months ahead of schedule, giving UTA officials special bragging rights. UTA estimates the new light-rail extension will service some 3,000 new riders right off the bat.

"I hope to see this kind of crowd at the station every day," UTA general manager John Inglish said as he stood at the new Medical Center station. Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson joined Inglish in predicting a new "renaissance" of mass transit in Utah and across the nation.

Inglish predicted transit projects will sweep across U.S. cities in the next 50 years.

"They're all looking at Salt Lake City," Anderson said.

At the turn of the last century, the mayor pointed out, Salt Lake City had some 156 miles of trolley track, which was ripped out after a "consortium of automobile and tire companies" bought and removed the transit system to make way for wider streets.

Yet transit projects are only possible with federal transit funding.

"We have a tough fight ahead of us" in Washington, said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who criticized the current Bush administration for its efforts to limit federal funding for transit projects to a 50-percent match. The federal government offered to pay 60 percent of the cost to build the Health Sciences Center TRAX extension.

University of Utah president Bernard Machen urged students to refrain from jaywalking near TRAX rails and for motorists to observe the new traffic signs.

As students break in the new line, UTA officials are turning their eyes to future projects.

"We have a lot on our mind right now," said UTA director of transit development Mike Allegra.

On the radar screen is the future construction of a commuter rail network from Salt Lake County to Davis and Utah counties as well as TRAX spurs to West Jordan, West Valley City and Draper.

Within a year, Allegra said, written plans should be complete to extend TRAX from the Delta Center to the Salt Lake intermodal terminal near the Gateway. The terminal will not only cater to TRAX and UTA buses, but to Amtrak trains, local taxi cabs and Greyhound buses.

Allegra said the Davis County commuter rail system is planned for operation by 2007. No dates have been set for additional TRAX lines as funding has not come through, he said.