This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Three years ago, the 6-mile Salt Lake City International Airport TRAX line was completed for $350 million. On Wednesday, city officials asked the Utah Transit Authority for another $65 million project to extend and elevate tracks another half-mile to a new terminal.
The UTA Board quickly approved a first step toward that, authorizing spending $4.3 million this year on design work.
That came over objections from George Chapman, a board member of the watchdog Utah Transit Riders Union.
"We should not be paying for airport TRAX again. We already paid for it," he told the UTA Board. "That's coming out of bus service expansion. That's wrong."
Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the current airport TRAX station must be removed because of the new $2.6 billion terminal redevelopment project. The current site is in an area needed for aircraft movement in the future.
So the station either must be moved back down the line, or the rail tracks need to be extended and elevated into the new terminal.
"We can move it back," which would be cheaper, "but that means you've got to take a bus to get to the terminal" or walk about 1,200 feet, Biskupski said. Of course, that would take away many of the advantages of taking the train to the airport.
The extension proposed would be for about a half-mile, but most of it would be on elevated track and would enter into the second level of the new terminal.
"We have a serious choice to make. This station and the rail component of our new world-class airport can either be a bright spot in the state-of-the-art facility … or it can be the missing piece of an airport designed with traveler comfort and convenience in mind," the mayor told the UTA Board.
Kevin Robins, director of engineering at the airport, said the current TRAX station location was always considered temporary, and the city and UTA have a longstanding agreement for its relocation as the new terminal is built, which is scheduled for completion in 2020.
But $65 million is a big outlay for an agency that vowed last year during debates on Proposition 1 (to raise taxes for transit) to focus more on buses in the near future and on expanding weekend and night service, and less on building more expensive new rail lines.
Biskupski told the UTA Board that the city does not want the full cost "just to fall in your lap," and is working on ways to help cover the costs, including seeking federal grants and loans or acquiring funding help from the state.
One source she says she is not considering is changing a state law that currently prohibits using airline passenger fees for rail projects. Such fees are covering much of the cost of the new terminal project.
But Chapman argued that "airport passenger fees should be paying for this," adding that funds would otherwise come out other transit service that UTA has promised to improve.
Some UTA Board members asked if approving $4.3 million for design work now would affect bus service this year.
UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said it "will not have an impact on our current levels of service."
He added that moving forward with design now will not obligate UTA to build the extension in the future. "It's a good-faith gesture on the part of UTA, and it's consistent with a prior agreement that we have with Salt Lake City dealing with the airport."
Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie urged the UTA Board to move forward with the project, and also vowed to help find funding for later construction.
"I know that it's more than we anticipated funding," Beattie said. "We've got to work together to find where those funds are because I promise you it will be an advantage for the citizens, for the business of the state of Utah … and for our future."
The UTA Board amended its current budget Wednesday to allow the design work with only one dissenting vote, from Matthew Bell, a Weber County commissioner. But his opposition was more over an unrelated issue involving spending additional sales taxes from Proposition 1, which was approved in Weber and Davis counties.
Bell said Weber County cities believe they have not been consulted enough by UTA on plans for the Prop 1 money, and worry that UTA is focusing on new bus purchases and leases that could tie up money long-term possibly at the expense of projects local leaders prefer.
"We still feel like our needs have not been addressed," Bell said.