Did anyone consult with Utah's top economists before plunging into the TRAX light-rail project? Apparently not.
If they had, those economic gurus agreed Monday at the Utah Bankers Association annual convention, downtown Main Street would now be a happy, bustling area of commerce, recovering from last year's underground parking project.Instead, when Utahns now utter the words "downtown Beirut," they are not referring to a bombed-out burg in Lebanon but rather to the business and financial hub of the state's capital city.
Oh, sure, the construction will end one day - a day that some Main Street merchants won't survive to see - but that's not the real problem with light rail, said Jeff Thredgold, president of Thredgold Economic Associates and economic consultant to Zions Bank.
"The problem is that none of us plan to ride it."
Oops. Wouldn't that be ironic. They built a light rail but no one climbed on board. Thredgold believes that everyone who commutes to downtown along the Wasatch Front expects his neighbors to take the train to work, but they have no intention of doing so themselves.
The light-rail construction "drives me nuts," said Thredgold, who operates his company in the Kearns Building on Main Street. "I'm glad I don't have to depend on walk-in traffic for my business."
Though less blunt in his assessment of light rail, Kelly K. Matthews, chief economist for First Security Bank, was equally pessimistic on the prospect of Utahns' parking their cars and taking the train to work.
Matthews couched his analogy in purely business terms, as a banker would. An automobile, he said, is a depreciating asset, one that must be used or its value is wasted. If it sits in the garage while its owner rides the rails, then it's clearly not being used as it was intended - even though the payments, taxes, insurance and all other costs, save gasoline, go on.
In short, he said, "It's insane not to use that asset once you have it."
The insanity is compounded, he noted, by the fact that gasoline is very cheap and downtown parking is even cheaper, especially by the standards of most large cities.
The bottom line, said Matthews, is that the only way an individual can justify taking light rail is to not buy a car, a prospect that most Utahns will find impractical to the extreme.
Therefore: "If you buy a car but leave it in the garage to ride light rail," said Matthews, "you're not following a wise economic course."
Insane? Unwise economic course? The TRAX people better have a whale of a marketing plan up their sleeves if they expect to overcome those arguments.
Finally, there were the comments of John Mitchell, economist for U.S. Bank and a Portland, Ore., resident whose city has already put in a commuter rail system with what he described as less than happy results.
"Ridership is far below the projections made before it was built," said Mitchell. "If anything, traffic (in Portland) is getting worse." Still, he offered, not wanting to end on a downbeat, "There's always hope."
Matthews, Thredgold and Mitchell were joined by R. Thayne Robson, director of the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business research, who served as moderator, stand-up comedian and Mr. Interlocutor for the group that last appeared here in 1996 for the economics version of tag-team wrestling.
The "three wise men," as Robson calls them, ranged over a vast array of subjects during the two-hour morning session, leaving the audience of some 400 bankers and spouses awash in a sea of statistics and economic projections.
But their sharpest comments were saved for the highly controversial light-rail issue, clearly a hot button for the bank executives, most of whom work downtown.
At the end of the marathon session, Robson attempted to pin the three wise men down to a forecast of when the next recession will occur in Utah. Here are their boiled-down responses:
Matthews: "I think it's irrelevant."
Mitchell: "Sometime after the year 2000."