If you're eagerly awaiting light rail because you think it will take other people off the road, Wendell Cox has news for you.

Cox, one of the nation's foremost critics of light rail and mass transit in general, told a Salt Lake audience Tuesday not to expect the Utah Transit Authority's TRAX system to make the daily commute any less difficult."Light rail will have no impact whatsoever on traffic congestion in the Salt Lake Valley," the Illinois-based public policy consultant told the Utah Highway Users Conference at the Wyndham Hotel.

"It has had almost no impact on congestion wherever it has been built."

Cox said the main reason drivers won't get out of their cars and hop on TRAX vehicles is that downtown Salt Lake City is the only area light rail can effectively serve, and only 10 percent of the area's work trips are to the downtown area.

"Except for downtown, light rail can't compete with the automobile for speed and access," he said.

Cox said light rail, now operating in 20 U.S. cities, is being developed in the United States because federal money is available for the taking and because it is a "monument" many city leaders feel they must have.

He said light-rail money would be better spent on new roads, such as the Legacy Parkway and the rest of the proposed Legacy Highway. He said major technological advances that will allow more traffic to travel more efficiently on American highways are just around the corner.

State Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, got into the anti-light rail spirit after Cox's talk. He suggested, somewhat humorously, that all the money being spent on light rail in Utah be used to buy each of UTA's riders an automobile.

UTA General Manager John Inglish, who also spoke at the gathering, did not get into an all-out debate with Cox but did take issue with some of his assertions.

Inglish said one problem with public transit in America is that it was ignored in the '50s and '60s during the freeway construction boom while other countries, like Canada, continued to nurture their transit systems. U.S. transit agencies, Inglish said, are still playing catch-up.

"It's not quite the doom and gloom" scenario Cox portrays, Inglish said.

Cox manages a Web site on public policy issues, including public transit, at (www.publicpurpose.com).

Tuesday's meeting produced several other noteworthy comments:

- UTA is nearly a year ahead of schedule on its north-south light-rail line but officials have not moved the planned March 2000 start-up date. Inglish, however, said he is now "fairly confident" TRAX will be up and running before the end of December 1999.

- Mansell said he thinks legislators are "open to hear the feelings of the public" regarding a proposed sales-tax increase for UTA and local road construction. The high-ranking Republican said it will be interesting to see if lawmakers support a sales-tax referendum in UTA's six-county district, "if in fact there is enough nerve to bring it up this session. . . . I'm not sure the Legislature is in the mood to" support such a ballot measure.

- Tom Warne, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said his department has "basically abandoned" the idea of charging a toll to help pay for the Legacy Parkway. "There's certainly nothing in the way of tolls on the drawing board," he said.

- Sen. John Holmgren, R-Bear River City, questioned whether the Legacy Parkway should be built before five miles of I-80 in Salt Lake County are reconstructed, which is now the plan. Warne acknowledged that I-80 and I-15 in Davis County both need to be rebuilt, and the Bangerter Highway should be extended into Utah County, but that no significant funds have been set aside for those tasks. "There's an awful lot of need out there that is unfunded," Warne said.