Light-rail mass transit will debut in Utah on Saturday, Dec. 4, months ahead of projected construction timetables -- and seven years after Salt Lake County voters rejected a sales-tax increase to pay for it.

The Utah Transit Authority board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday to open the 15-mile, north-south Transit Express (TRAX) line with a Dec. 4 grand opening and begin regular operation at approximately 5 a.m. on Dec. 6.TRAX will open four months ahead of UTA engineers' estimate and nearly 13 months ahead of the completion date UTA committed to in its funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration.

"It's a miracle," UTA General Manager John Inglish said of his agency's ability to build the $312 million system despite the referendum's defeat. "We did it without raising taxes and with a lot of exposure. We had plenty of scrutiny throughout."

Inglish called TRAX "the freeway for public transit" and said the agency is anxious to compete with that other mode of transportation that is now squeezed between concrete barriers on the I-15 reconstruction corridor.

UTA officials said they hope the early opening will heal some of the scars left in downtown Salt Lake City where merchants suffered through two years of construction in which Main Street was literally torn apart and rebuilt.

They hope people will use light rail to come downtown and do their holiday shopping.

Brian Hatch, a transportation specialist and aide to Mayor Deedee Corradini, said he believes TRAX will boost retail sales, particularly at the two downtown malls -- Crossroads and the ZCMI Center -- which are separated by Main Street and the TRAX line.

"I think it'll have a more positive impact than people are anticipating," said Hatch, who attended Wednesday's meeting. "The folks that have had experience with light rail in other cities, like Nordstrom, are very much looking forward to it."

UTA will offer free TRAX rides in communities up and down the corridor on Saturdays throughout October. TRAX vehicles also will be seen downtown in the next few weeks as crews test the cars, the traffic signals and other aspects of the system.

Inglish said there is a slight chance the Dec. 4 grand opening might be postponed. UTA still needs a certificate of railroad safety from the state and a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to operate light rail on a track also used by a freight operator (Salt Lake City Southern).

Some components of the system probably won't be ready in time, he said, but TRAX can open without them. A power substation at 300 South may not be operational, and the rails may not be sanded to fit the exact profile of the vehicle wheels.

Also, the Murray Central Station between Vine Street and 5300 South may not open along with the other 15 passenger stations because the access road to the station may not be completed in time.

A year after defeat of the 1992 referendum, which would have funded I-15 reconstruction and bus expansion as well, UTA purchased the abandoned rail right of way that will soon carry light-rail vehicles from 10000 South in Sandy to the Delta Center. It eventually secured a contract with the federal government that called for Washington to pay for 80 percent of the construction costs.

"There was a point there when the election failed and federal interest seemed to be on 50-50 (funding) matches and we pretty much resigned ourselves to that being the end of it," Inglish said.

"The one thing that continued to carry us is, compared to other areas of the country, this was a very good project, very cost effective. It's probably one of the lowest-cost light-rail projects, in terms of construction costs, in the country."

The project remains about $10 million under budget.

Inglish gave credit to Mike Allegra, UTA's director of transit development, for insisting that UTA not give up on TRAX.

"Although the referendum failed, the problem, the demand, the need was still there," Allegra said Wednesday. "It was still the right solution without maybe the right way to pay for it."

UTA will operate the system with federal money it already receives and revenues from its $1 one-way fare.

While UTA officials describe it as an incredible feat, others represented at Wednesday's board meeting remain upset that UTA went forward with light rail after voters rejected the referendum.

"I am absolutely offended. This is the beginnings of tyranny," said Drew Chamberlain, among the leaders of a local effort to stop light rail. "I don't know why they built light rail. I don't know if it's political payola.

"It certainly isn't for transportation because it doesn't decrease air pollution, it doesn't reduce congestion and it doesn't increase ridership -- it increases boardings but not ridership."

Also Wednesday, three new members joined the UTA board: former Draper City Councilman Darrel Smith and insurance executive Orrin Colby, both Salt Lake County appointees, and former UTA board chairman Steve Randall, a Davis County appointee.