Light rail continues to be a lightning rod for controversy, this time pitting the Salt Lake City Council against the Utah Transportation Commission. Their disagreement deals with running light-rail tracks along 400 South. It appears the commission holds all the cards.
That hand ought to be played thoughtfully and cooperatively. There is too much to lose - in time and federal money - in a high-stakes power game over turf and control.Salt Lake City has planned the past two years - for seemingly sound reasons - that 400 South would be the best bet for running west-east light rail to the University of Utah. Arguments for doing so include placing riders close to business and retail centers, increasingly important as downtown expands southward; avoiding residential neighborhoods; and best accommodating tracks along the busy but wide street that once was a trolley route.
City leaders claim UDOT staff members have been involved in those discussions, with few objections. Now the Transportation Commission sounds like it has hardly heard of light rail, let alone plans for the 400 South routing. One commissioner questioned being "forced" to come downtown on the rail line because it would be in Salt Lake's best interest.
The issue of carrying large numbers of riders into and out of the downtown area was not decided solely by the city but by a broad group of transportation planners and government officials. Light rail will run downtown for the very reason I-15 is being expanded: The city is where the lion's share of people commute to and from daily. We trust the commission comprehends that fact.
Commissioners apparently have no intention of divesting 400 South to Salt Lake City and cite left-turn delays as a primary reason. Salt Lake City already has taken that into account, with plans to work around it.
The state may have other valid reasons for retaining control of the busy street, but it should enter a cooperative agreement for the city to run rail lines along the route once the left-turn issue is resolved. The process of approving another route at this stage would delay the project by months or more - making it impossible to complete by the 2002 Winter Games.
Planners have counted on $80 million in federal fast-track funding, conditioned upon completing the project by 2002. That is nothing to be taken lightly. It adds urgency to a situation that needs cooperative solutions and not political power plays.