The Utah Transportation Commission may not support Salt Lake City's choice for a west-to-east light-rail route up 400 South - one the city spent two years determining is its best option.
And this bump in the project's road could carry an $80 million price tag.Several rules of the road seemed to change Wednesday.
Commissioners didn't formally vote on the city's proposal but worried aloud that 400 South already carries too many cars and light rail would foul up left-hand turns, compounding congestion. Utah Department of Transportation staff also seemed reluctant to support the city choice.
"So now we have a dilemma," UDOT's John Njord told the commission. "Do we allow it to happen or don't we?"
In this latest stage of protracted negotiations to determine light-rail routes, UDOT also said it's in the state's best interest to keep control of 400 South.
For two years - and through countless public hearings - city planners have worked under assumption UDOT would relinquish jurisdiction of 400 South to the city.
But UDOT Executive Director Tom Warne said Wednesday the transfer "is not in order." The road is vital to the I-15/downtown traffic system, he said. "We ought to maintain control over that street, whether light rail is there or not."
The light-rail path the city recommended starts at Salt Lake International Airport and ends at the University of Utah, running from downtown east up the center of 400 South.
Brian Hatch of Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini's staff was diplomatic after the meeting, saying he hopes consensus could be reached. But the city's back is against the wall.
The process of approving another route would take time - months or maybe even years, Hatch said - and could make it impossible to finish the project before the 2002 Olympic Games. Planners have counted on fast-track $80 million in federal funding, which is conditioned upon the completion of the project in time for the Games.
From the onset of Wednesday's discussion, commissioners were quick to question the city's 400 South recommendation. Openly irritated, Commissioner Hal Clyde accused the city of "trying to force our hand."
Clyde and others expressed more interest in a proposal the city rejected, one running the system on 300 South.
Because 400 South is - and apparently will remain - a state road, the city is dependent on the commission's approval to build the light-rail system. And, commissioners seemed more than willing to put the brakes on the proposal's progress.
"There is really no easy alternative," Hatch said after the meeting. "There's only a series of difficult options. But, what has been recommended is what we feel is the best of those options."
While Hatch admitted there are glitches to iron out of the 400 South plan, there is "large opposition" to the 300 South alternative.
Representatives from American Stores, with headquarters on 300 South, agree. The company will have 1,800 employees at its new downtown tower.
"American Stores is opposed to the proposal to move light rail from 400 South to 300 South due to the amount of traffic congestion it would add to the whole area," said Dan Zvonek, director of public relations.
Under heavy fire from commissioners, city staffers explained why they chose 400 South, including:
- The street was first designed for travel by trolley, so planners said it would be a more natural home for light rail than any other. Staff said they had plans to minimize problems with left-hand turns.
- The city's master plan projects downtown will expand to the south and west, so a more southerly street makes more sense.
- The 400 South route takes passengers closer to business and retail centers and better serves pedestrians. On the other hand, the 300 South route would run into residential neighborhoods, conceivably dropping off and picking up passengers in front of private residences.
But Warne challenged the city's resolve, telling them they could make it work if they "really wanted to."
Project manager Ralph Jackson reminded the commission that UDOT staff had been part of the discussions for months so knew of the city's focus on 400 South.
Though many believe the Wasatch Front will need a mass-transportation system - including light rail - as people continue to flood into the valley, Transportation Commissioner Glen Brown seemed to take issue with the whole premise of carrying riders to the downtown area.
"I've been sitting here listening to you, and it seems like the only issue is supporting transit," Brown said. "But what if I don't want to have to come downtown in the first place? Are you making decisions that will force me to come because it's in the best interest of the city?"
Jackson countered by saying that the downtown business center is not deliberately competing with other areas, but "economic development is going where it's going."