Crumbling, Grumbling, Precede West's Light-Rail Rumbling

As the waffle-iron grid of city streets bulges with the influx of millions of newcomers, Salt Lake City is looking for new solutions to its growing transportation problems.

Since the days of Henry Ford, Utah, like many Western states, has treated personal space in the automobile like the right to bear arms. But now Salt Lake City commuters are finding that this seemingly inviolate right isn't worth much when construction vehicles pass cars at a standstill on I-15 at rush hour.

"The whole planning and development of that urban area is predicated on the motor car," says Peter Martin, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Utah. "[Salt Lake] valley is becoming a major metropolitan area and has to face certain brutal choices."

The West has been dealing with these choices more and more often. San Diego, Denver, and Portland, Ore., have already built modern trolley systems - called light rail - to deal with their growth, and Los Angeles has a light-rail system that feeds into its subway.

While Salt Lake commuter Bonnie Canning is still loath to step from her car, she now wishes light rail and commuter rail were in place. The quagmire of the current reconstruction on the city's main artery, I-15, coupled with the imminent construction of light rail, has many wishing the city had planned ahead.

"I know they have all kinds of excuses for not planning ahead, but I wish they had finished the alternate routes before they started a major part of the freeway. There's no place to go," says Mrs. Canning.

In 1992, however, Salt Lake County voted down a referendum to spend tax dollars to improve the bus system, make highway improvements, and fund light rail. The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) responded by plunging ahead with the $312 million light-rail project anyway.

"People say we turned down light rail, but that wasn't the case," says UTA board chairman Jim Clark. UTA had to pursue a form of mass transit to qualify for federal highway funds, and light rail was the answer. He points to studies that touted light rail and calls detractors a fringe element.

Dave Owen, who helped form Citizens Against Light Rail, is one of those on the fringe. He looks at Portland - one of the classic light-rail examples - and says all it did was move bus riders from an inexpensive mode of transportation to a costly one. "You could pay 1,000 people out in Sandy [a nearby suburb] about $30,000 per year not to drive a car into downtown Salt Lake City and you would get about the same impact," says Mr. Owen.

Mr. Martin, however, says every little bit counts. "Light rail is just one component in addressing transportation's needs, and it's far more important to have a light-rail system ... than none at all."

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