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Light rail transit: an issue for the voters.


An Issue for the Voters

Light rail transit (LRT) is an electrically propelled high-capacity rail transit system. It can operate either in mixed traffic with automobiles or on exclusive right-of-way routes.

A proposal will come before Salt Lake City voters, most likely in 1992, for the creation of a double-tracked LRT system to operate in the central corridor between 10600 South and 800 South, continuing into downtown Salt Lake City. The system would also include an extensive feeder bus system. Together, the LRT and feeder bus system would provide service every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes in off-peak hours.

Utah Business recently interviewed John Pingree, general manager of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) regarding the proposed light rail system for Salt Lake City. Here are a few of his comments.

What's the connection between UTA and the light rail proposal?

Under present and proposed legislation, one public transit organization is the designated recipient of federal funds in each urbanized area in the United States. In the urbanized areas of Provo, Orem, Salt Lake City, and Ogden, UTA is the designated recipient.

Would you be the ones to set up and administer the light rail system?

Yes. The state could set up a separate light rail organization if people wanted it that way. But in communities where a public transportation system is already working well, it makes sense to place the expansion under that organization because you'll get better coordination with the bus system.

What effect does a light rail system have on an urban area? Ease of mobility adds greatly to the livability of a city. For example, Doug Dansie, the city planner for the Salt Lake City Planning Department, labels Los Angeles, Dallas, and Phoenix as "hostile" cities in spite of their modern climate because of their lack of infrastructure on planning and transportation issues. The LRT and bus system could provide Salt Lake City with reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality, and conservation of energy.

But people don't like to give up the freedom of their automobiles.

I don't think that people do give up their freedom with a light rail system. If we become a totally automobile-oriented city, many people won't have that freedom because they can't drive a car. Children can't drive a car; elderly people can't drive a car; some people with disabilities can't drive a car. If we're talking about true freedom, a large segment of the population is deprived of that freedom in a totally automobile-oriented society unless someone is willing to drive them. But when you have an accessible public transit system, everybody can use it.

What might people find most useful about a light rail system?

It's not perfect for everything that you want to do; it may not be the best way to go to the store, for example. But if you're commuting to and from work--and the work commute is a common source of problems in our society--it does it very well. A rail system can carry the capacity of four or five lanes of highway traffic. The costs for expansion are much less with light rail, but the carrying capacity is greater. Therefore, you can have growth without the corresponding congestion and pollution. Estimates are that in 15 years, I-15 and other major roads will be congested for 10 to 12 hours every weekday. If we don't plan ahead, we'll be seeing gridlock on our highways. And nobody wants that.

Suppose I live in Provo and work in Salt Lake. If I were to use the proposed light rail system, what would it be like?

Let's say that you're in Provo and you work at the ZCMI Center. You'd take our express bus from Provo, which stops at 10600 South. You'd get off the bus and get on the rail system, which would bring you almost to the front door of your workplace.

What about speed?

The rail system would average 33-35 miles per hour. That isn't particularly fast these days, but in 10 years that will be much faster than the freeway, because the freeway is continuing to jam up. On the California freeways, people average only 17 miles per hour in a 24-hour period. So you can see what a serious problem they have out there right now.

So your trip from Provo to work is probably going to take around an hour and 15 minutes; today in your car you could probably do it in 45 minutes. But in 10 years I think the freeway will start to jam up at 10600 South, and that's where we'll have massive congestion. At that point, it will save you a lot of time to have the option of using the rail system.

When I'm driving I can't do anything but drive, and I'm putting wear and tear on my own vehicle--and my nerves.

That's right. With a public transit situation, you have the option of reading, sleeping, studying, or finishing up work without having a phone to interupt you. For many busy people, this is a very productive part of the workday.

What will the light rail cost taxpayers compared to driving a personal car?

Everyone has a different cost on personal cars because of the kind of car they drive and its age. Hertz calculates that it costs about 40 cents a mile to drive one of their new cars. We compare the capital cost of this project to the capital cost of the freeways, figuring in the cost of adding additional lanes of freeway traffic. The study conducted by the Wasatch Front Regional Council, the transportation planning agency for our area, concluded that we must build a freeway as well as the light rail system because there's going to be so much demand in this valley. This valley really only has one way to move--north and south. You're going to be traveling I-15 or Seventh East or Redwood Road; those are the only corridors that exist.

The cost in 1987 dollars of meeting the public transit part of our transportation needs is $225 million. That means building sixteen miles of the light rail and doubling the size of the bus system. For the rail system, the capital costs are heavy on the front and the operating costs are low over a 20-year life span. For a bus, the operating costs are higher but the capital costs are lower.

Over a 20-year period, about 75-80 percent of the total cost will go for the bus system and 20 percent for the rail end of it. In comparison to the $225 million cost for the public transit project, the cost for two additional lanes to carry highway traffic is estimated at around $450 million.

How would the light rail system be funded?

Fifty percent of expenses would be federally funded. Private local sources would help with some of the costs. The community would finance the remaining 40 percent or so through an additional one-quarter of a percent sales tax in Salt Lake County, approved through a public referendum.

Such a system seems necessary because of the pollution that so many automobiles are causing.

Yes. Except that right now, as a nation, we refuse to deal with that issue. The greatest polluter in our area is the single-passenger car. The LRT would be clean and non-polluting in addition to being cost-effective and efficient.

Barbara R. Hume is president of Tristan Gareth Inc., a Provo-based communications services company.
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Title Annotation:A proposal will come before Salt Lake City voters in 1992
Author:Hume, Barbara R.
Publication:Utah Business
Article Type:interview
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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