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The FrontRunner commuter train arrived early — two to three years ahead of schedule, actually. And officials held celebrations Thursday in Salt Lake City and Provo to mark that early completion of an $850 million, 45-mile extension between the two cities.

"It's two years under time in its construction and 10 percent under budget. This is kind of a Utah way," Gov. Gary Herbert said at the Provo ceremony.

UTA originally committed to complete the line by 2015. More recently, it said it would be completed by 2014. But it is opening in 2012. The public may take its first rides along the segment on Saturday — with free fares to anyone who donates a nonperishable food item for the needy.

"It certainly is a visionary thing, and it has not been without controversy," Herbert said of the new line. "But the reality is we have become the fastest-growing state in America. And the need to have mass transit capability certainly is part and parcel of having a good quality of life and being economically viable as well as making sure we don't have congestion."

A trainload of mayors, legislators, business officials and others started the morning with a fog-bound ceremony in Salt Lake City, then rode an inaugural train to Provo for a sunny second ceremony.

"This will help economic development in our city," said Provo Mayor John Curtis. "It is part of the transportation puzzle that is coming together for us," he said — noting that Allegiant Air announced scheduled service to Provo on Wednesday, the FrontRunner ceremonies occurred Thursday and the ribbon cutting for a rebuilt Interstate 15 in Utah County is scheduled next week.

"It's planes, trains and automobiles all coming together for us," he said.

Orem Mayor James Evans noted the new FrontRunner Orem station is within walking distance of Utah Valley University, and predicted that will help the school grow as students may now commute there from longer distances without fighting traffic congestion.

Lt. Gov. Greg Bell referred to the ceremony being held during the first real winter inversion of the year, and said the new train may be a key to solving air pollution problems.

"One of the big things we can do to lessen that challenge [of air pollution] and put off other more draconian measures is to ride transit," he said, adding that ridership on FrontRunner equates to about the number of people traveling in a freeway lane.

"I cannot think of a greater Christmas present," said Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, looking at the inaugural train that sported a Christmas wreath on front. "We should have had a golden spike to pound here," he said, predicting the line will be of increasing importance to the state as it grows.

It also occurred on the birthday of UTA General Manager Michael Allegra. "Best birthday present ever," he said. "This is an incredible day for the Wasatch Front."

UTA Chairman Greg Hughes noted FrontRunner trains have Internet and power plugs, and allow riders to work on computers or read instead of sitting idly in traffic. He said future generations will find it more important "to tap on tablets and smart phones than tap on the brakes" during daily commutes.

FrontRunner will now allow passengers to travel the 89 miles between Provo and Ogden in less two hours. Trains have top speeds in some sections of 79 mph. Officials project about 6,800 riders will use the new section daily as it opens with stations in Murray, South Jordan, Draper, Lehi, American Fork, Orem and Provo.

A single-trip ticket for an adult between Provo and Salt Lake City will cost $5.65. A single trip between Provo and Ogden will cost $8.95.

The new line has 34 at-grade crossings and required moving 1.7 million cubic yards of earth, building 20 bridges, using 10,500 tons of rail and 118,000 concrete ties and relocating two canals.

UTA has three more rail line openings scheduled in the next year:

• The TRAX extension to Salt Lake City International Airport on April 14

• The TRAX extension to Draper in August

• And the Sugar House streetcar next December.

Food for fare

On Saturday, people may ride on the new section of FrontRunner between Salt Lake City and Provo for free — if they donate at stations a nonperishable food item for the needy. Trains will run every half hour from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The offer is good only for the new line, and regular fares must be paid on the FrontRunner between Salt Lake City and Ogden.