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Hopping a streetcar from the new Harmon's near City Creek Center to the FrontRunner hub — or jumping off in between at, say, Capitol Theatre or The Gateway — may be possible sooner than imagined.

Calling it "reasonable" to assume the federal government will fund half of Salt Lake City's downtown streetcar project, a consultant has put the capital in position to score the $37.5 million as early as next year.

Redevelopment Agency officials expect to hear this fall if their grant application to launch a so-called alternatives analysis is approved by the Federal Transit Administration. If it is, the groundwork — including engineering studies for a two-phase streetcar circulator — already is complete. That means by January the city could plow forward with an environmental impact review that would pave the way for a federal funding request.

"They seem to have a habit of trying to find a way to fund streetcar projects," Charlie Hales, senior vice president with HDR Engineering, said about the feds, which he called the city's "new best friend."

"We want to be ready."

On Tuesday, Hales told the City Council, acting as the RDA Board, that Washington's attitude toward transit has pivoted from "uncooperative" to "very supportive" under the Obama White House. He praised Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as a true believer in transit. And he called it very wise to have the technical work done and "prudent to pursue" money from Congress for the city's streetcar vision.

Until now, City Hall had been exploring local funding options, including assessment districts, tax-increment financing, parking surcharges or tapping hotel taxes or downtown sales tax. But given already bleak budgets and the flat economy, raising the $75 million seems unrealistic.

The streetcar's first phase, estimated at $50 million, would begin on the corner of 100 South and 200 East, jog south along 200 East, then turn west on 200 South. It would stretch to 400 West then turn south to 300 South and access the Depot District by skirting around the north end of the Rio Grande building.

"There's a lot of sensitivities there," Hales said, adding that navigating Rio Grande will require negotiations with the state. "But it could be a much more lively place."

Councilman Carlton Christensen worried the 200 East portion could hinder the parade routes for Pioneer Day or the Pride Festival. (The streetcar could be shut down those days.) And he wants to explore a mid-block alternative — zipping the streetcar from Harmon's to 200 South halfway between State Street and 200 East.

"It seems like it's on very solid footing," Christensen said, "and is certainly a direction we want to pursue."

Phase two, projected at $25 million, would extend south along 400 West to 900 South before swinging east to connect to the 900 South TRAX station. It is designed to energize the Fleet Block and complete the transit circulator. And it would set up future extensions on 900 South to 900 West and 900 East.

The city is working to shore up streetcar support with business owners in the Granary District, the LDS Church, the Downtown Alliance and others. Engineers insist the wide streets are a benefit and say that a street like 400 West can accommodate both a streetcar and TRAX train with a car lane in between. A similar design works in Portland, Ore., officials said.

Yet some things would have to change. Consultants are recommending more urban zoning downtown, parking maximums, more mid-block streets and the prohibition of drive-through facilities. They also suggest the city keep its management options open in case a streetcar contract with Utah Transit Authority does not happen.

City leaders still are waiting to hear about their federal funding request for the Sugar House streetcar.

But with an election looming, and concern about spending driving a potential GOP takeover of the U.S. House, could cash for streetcars be in danger?

Probably not, Hales said, pointing to a host of grant programs including Urban Circulator. "It gives us some fear," he said about the election. But LaHood "really believes in this agenda. He'll be able to work with the Congress regardless of who's politically in control."

"Aren't they going to tell us how to use it though," Councilman Luke Garrott quipped about the money. "Because if they are, we probably don't want it."

Just in case his sarcasm had escaped some, Garrott deadpanned that it was awful to use federal cash to keep teachers employed.

In other Salt Lake City news:

The Redevelopment Agency Board voted unanimously to grant another six-month extension to negotiate a purchase agreement with the LDS Church for the parcel at 135 S. Main St. envisioned as the future home for an $80 million Broadway-class theater. RDA Executive Director D.J. Baxter said he is "hopeful" this is the final extension before the city completes the purchase.