An automobile dealer would not expect to sell a car without the buyer taking a test drive. Ideally, a transportation agency promoting light rail would do the same before asking anyone to spend more money. That may not be possible for the Utah Transit Authority, which faces several critical crossroads with its TRAX light-rail system.

UTA needs a commitment to provide operating funds in order to get federal dollars for three small-but-significant east-west spurs into Draper, West Jordan and West Valley City. Segments of those stretches could be completed by the 2002 Winter Games if everything falls into place.That operating commitment is required soon, however, before TRAX is up and running. It would necessitate a quarter-cent sales tax increase in UTA's six-county operating area, a proposal that could go before voters as quickly as November 1999.

The referendum should happen, and it ought to be approved. Utah is in a position to boast one of the nation's most complete light-rail systems, providing convenient access for commuters living in three populous parts of the valley.

The door is open for fast-track construction and funding of some 45 miles of the light-rail system, but decisions must be made quickly, based on reasonable ridership projections. It took San Diego 17 years to fund and build 47 miles of light rail. Nowhere else has an entire system sprung up as quickly as it could here.

In Salt Lake City, the ideal scenario would be for a vote on the slight tax increase to occur after TRAX was operational. That would give the measure the optimum opportunity to gain voter support. History has shown that while suburban communities initially oppose light-rail construction, they usually hop on the bandwagon once it is up and running.

There is no time for that here, however. Instead, an effective information campaign must be mounted between now and late 1999.

A recent Deseret News survey found a clear majority of Salt Lake County voters support a referendum. However, a majority also would oppose a quarter-cent sales-tax hike if it went exclusively to light rail and UTA buses. If the money went toward local road enhancements as well, voters would be more likely to approve.

Fortunately, mayors and county commissioners in Salt Lake County want to include road improvements in such a referendum. They should work with UTA and begin a cooperative push toward gaining support for the increase.

The Wasatch Front Regional Council - a planning organization funded by local governments, decided in 1997 to base its planning on the assumption UTA would receive a quarter-cent tax increase around the year 2000. That foresight was realistic and should prove prophetic. Results would include improved roads, a better bus system, including Sunday service, and a light-rail system with sufficient east-west access to be truly effective.