Planners and elected officials along the Wasatch Front are taking hints from Utah history books as they prepare for transportation challenges in the future.

Rail travel has been implemented in downtown Salt Lake City, hearkening back to 1872 when a mule pulled the first street car along tracks on Main Street.

"Considering that Utah's first mass-transit system was donkey-powered," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, "I believe that truly shows that Democrats have been leading the way in mass transit for over 100 years."

The Democratic mayor's quip was met with chuckles from the 200-plus transportation planners, government officials and developers who attended a transit-oriented development conference Monday hosted by the Utah Transit Authority.

UTA brought in transit experts from around the world, including Eduardo Guimaraes, the secretary of international relations and protocol for Curitiba, Brazil — a city world renowned for its implementation of a bus-rapid transit system.

Guimaraes said the city of 1.8 million people has "a surface underground system" that can transport twice as many people as the subway system in Washington, D.C., and cost 20 times less.

"We need to be looking everywhere for the kinds of creative ideas and solutions that can help us with the problems we have here," said John Inglish, UTA general manager.

Becker, a community planner-turned-mayor, offered a short history lesson on transit in Utah, highlighting milestones of past years and comparing them with improvements being made today.

That first street car on Main Street turned into a 41-car system covering nine miles of track. In 1889, donkeys were replaced by electric street cars, Becker said, and by 1900, the Salt Lake Valley had more than 100 miles of track.

"The earliest street cars sometimes got stuck on variations in the track," he said. "When that happened, the passengers and the crew piled out to rock the car over the bump."

That's not too different from voters in 2006 giving development of the Wasatch Front's modern transit system "a nudge forward," Becker said, by approving a quarter-cent sales tax increase.

The early era of mass transit came to an end in 1945, largely due to the availability of automobiles and funding from federal and state taxes for road projects, the mayor said.

Fifty-four years later, on Dec. 4, 1999, the valley witnessed what Becker called "a rebirth of electric trains" when UTA opened its $312 million, 15-mile light-rail line connecting Sandy with downtown Salt Lake City.

The university TRAX line followed in 2001 and was complemented this year by UTA's FrontRunner commuter-rail line connecting Salt Lake City and Ogden.

Another 70 miles of light- and commuter-rail track are expected to get under construction in the next seven years, including four TRAX lines in the Salt Lake Valley and a FrontRunner line running south to Utah County.

Becker also is advocating for the return of the street car for a new rail line in Sugar House — a project he says could be under construction in as soon as five years.

"Some of this may seem like a back-to-the-future scenario, and in a way, it is," Becker said, "but we should not be confused. This is a scenario with a new technology — a technology that is more comfortable, more convenient and much faster."

And it goes hand in hand, he said, with residential, retail and office development along the transit lines. Cities across the nation are transitioning to urban developments that allow people to live, work, shop and play without having to get into a car.

Utah is no different, Becker said, citing the Daybreak community in South Jordan, Market Station on the border of South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City and the planned City Creek Center project downtown. All are mixed-use developments geared toward pedestrians.

"We in the greater Wasatch area are poised to burst into the national forefront with our incredible rail system development," Becker said. "We need to take full advantage of that with transit-oriented development."

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