Oregon mass transit experts encouraged a delegation of Utah officials Wednesday to consider building a light-rail system to solve traffic congestion problems near Salt Lake City.

A delegation of 23 Utah officials toured the Tri-Met MAX light-rail system, which serves a 15-mile corridor from downtown Portland to Gresham, Ore.Tri-Met engineering director Ron Higbee told the group that light-rail ridership was double the amount anticipated and had proved cheaper than building more freeways into the city.

He said engineers had predicted ridership of 3 million people annually when the electric rail system opened in 1986, but more than 6 million people were regular riders in the first year of operation.

Tri-Met Director James Cowen also said the light rail recovered 51 percent of its operating costs through fares, compared to only about 30 percent for the buses that serve the three counties near Portland.

The Utah officials came away impressed.

"It's a very impressive system, an unqualified success," said John Pingree, director of the Utah Transit Authority. "They have done it right."

Samuel Taylor, chairman of the Utah Transportation Commission, said he could see a light-rail system in Salt Lake City's future.

"It has to come in some form," he said. "We are already looking at building two more north-south freeways in the Salt Lake Valley."

But he said the city already has so much traffic that it faces increased air pollution problems.

"We are right on the edge of having sanctions by the EPA (nvironmental Protection Agency)," he said. "It's been my experience, during my years on the commission, that the number of cars increase in direct proportion to the amount of pavement."

Richard B. Tempest, a Republican state senator from Murray, Utah, said he could also see some form of light rail as a solution to increased traffic in Salt Lake City.

"Something has got to be done," he said. "The I-15 corridor is now handling as much as 10 times the traffic it was designed for."

Trent Jeppson, president of the UTA board, said preliminary studies showed that a light-rail system could be built in Salt Lake City for $250 million. He also said it appeared that engineering studies now being conducted would show that it would be cheaper than building additional freeways into the downtown business district.

The Oregon officials warned that funding would be the hardest obstacle to overcome since the federal government has cut back on support for mass transit systems.

Taylor said Utah hoped to acquire funds when the federal highway laws are re-written in 1992. He said the state also would have to look at some kind of bonding.

Jeppson said the Utahns will also tour light-rail systems in the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Calgary. He said the Canadian systems might provide more information on how the trains hold up in cold climates.

The MAX system operates as a streetcar through the downtown Portland business district and then increases its speed to 55 mph to become a commuter train outside the city. It makes 27 stops along its run, which takes about half an hour.