Poll finds Utahns want more commuter trains

Most favor extending TRAX and Frontrunner, but balk at bonding for freeways.
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If laying the first tracks didn't settle the debate a decade ago, riding the trains since then would seem to have done it: Utahns like light rail.

A survey by the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy & Administration finds overwhelming public support for continued investment in rail transit projects. Among 1,002 residents polled statewide, 79 percent said continued funding for rail projects either is very important or somewhat important.

Among the 546 interviewed within the Utah Transit Authority's service area, that support spurted to 81 percent, said Jennifer Robinson, associate director for the U.'s center.

It's no surprise to Wasatch Front Regional Council Director Chuck Chappell, who said nine-plus years of riding the rails have convinced once-skeptical Utahns that they need transportation choices.

"There's huge support for that on the part of the council and now, apparently, the public," he said. "I think it's [because of] experience with congestion on the highways and the need for alternatives in the peak periods."

Robinson said it also may be because skyrocketing gasoline prices last summer boosted the number of riders, exposing more people to TRAX and FrontRunner rail service. UTA recorded a 12 percent jump in passengers during 2008, though January's numbers -- a few months after gas prices plunged -- were back near last year's numbers, up just 2.4 percent. Light rail continued to gain popularity, though, up 16 percent from a year ago while bus ridership fell.

The poll was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates from Jan. 29 to Feb. 7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

Support for bonding to build new freeways was more lukewarm in the poll. Only 38 percent backed bonding for the proposed Mountain View highway in western Salt Lake County, and 48 percent favored bonding for reconstruction of Interstate 15 in Utah County.

Utahns interviewed downtown Thursday said they value light rail and commuter rail. Scott Jubeck said he wishes he could commute to his tech-industry job in Lehi -- a wish that will come true when UTA completes FrontRunner south into Utah County.

UTA also remains on track to extend light rail to Salt Lake County's west side, Draper and the international airport.

Many of those who opposed sales taxes to build light rail in the first place remain unconvinced, though. Activist Janalee Tobias still prefers highway spending, perhaps coupled with better bus service or private vans. She's not surprised, though, at the support for subsidized transit.

"They don't have to pay the full cost of light rail," she said. "If they had to pay the full cost of a ticket, they wouldn't ride."